Illustration by Dana Kim
Never question the efficacy of a great album. Dance singles offer concentrated dopamine hits and lengthy mixes offer IV drips of all sorts of pleasant neurotransmitters, but 2016's vast slate of electronic full-lengths, while sometimes more gradual in their effects, are no less life-altering. Afforded the opportunity to take up a little more space, producers made a number of complex statements, offering up electro-protest anthems, rose-tinted remembrances of childhood, and collections of club tracks as harrowing as War of the Worlds. Below are 33 albums that went beyond a single track's impact to offer expansive discourse and complicated feelings—in a year that demanded both.
Though Aa didn't come out until March, Baauer heralded his debut studio album's arrival back in January, when the producer debuted "Days Ones," a collaboration with Novelist and Leikeli47, on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Leikeli47 was wearing her signature balaclava; the Brooklyn-based producer, whose real name is Harry Rodrigues, was seated casually on a couch to the side of the stage, wearing headphones and staring at a laptop. Even for someone who has lived, at various times, in Philly, Germany, London, and Connecticut, the ruse positioned Rodrigues first and foremost as a child of the internet.
And Aa cements that interpretation, leveraging bass music, grime, hip-hop, and twinkling ambience less as ends in themselves than as shifting emotional terrains in an LED-lit journey into the end of the night. The stacked lineup of guests on the album—among them, Future, Pusha T, MIA, and South Korean rapper G-Dragon—make for some of the highest highs, but to Baauer's credit, in his first big look since the "Harlem Shake," the moments of wide-eyed lyricism leave as much of an impression as the drops.—Emilie Friedlander
DJ TiGa describes his craft in surprisingly functional terms. Discussing the philosophy that informed The Sound Vol. 1, his debut mixtape for J-Cush's influential Brooklyn label Lit City Trax, the Newark-based producer put it simply: "Club music isn't beautiful. It's supposed to make you sweat, you're supposed to jump, you're supposed to be able to scream to the top of your lungs."
Caffeine-pill flips of Rocko's "U.O.E.N.O" and Biggie's "Dead Wrong" (presented in filleted form here as "Take Note (Who the Man)," fulfill that mandate of dancefloor destruction. But the real triumph of The Sound Vol. 1, contrary to TiGa's own claims, is the paradoxical beauty of the thing; he has a knack for presenting simple melodies that roil colorfully against the TV static of the drum programming. It's often an austere sort of allure, but the kaleidoscopic sweetness underpinning songs like the Tink and Aaliyah-sampling "Your Love" is part of what makes The Sound so addictive outside of dancefloor contexts—a little saccharine to accompany the sweat.—Colin Joyce
Since I started working a 9-5 last year, my listening sessions during my daily bus commute have acquired a level of personal sanctity similar in emotional intensity to Helga's shrine to Arnold in her closet. This is my time, and whatever I put on better fucking jam. So it's not faint praise to say that the album I've played most often after wrenching myself out of bed and crumpling into a blue plastic bus seat is this under-the-radar stunner from British producer Ana Caprix. It's hard to quantify exactly what's going with it musically: there are elements of trance, sure, but there's also hip-hop percussion, dreamy ambient pads, and a nasty Dido sample or two. It doesn't matter, ultimately; just throw it on and melt away.—Ezra Marcus
Mexican producer born Kevin Santana is known for making bold statements; his alias of Mock the Zuma is a parody of the notorious ninth governor of Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma II. Released on influential Mexican label and collective NAAFI, Gauss is plagued with sounds extracted from video games and internet clips and is about the realities of living and making music in Mexico. The record's seven tracks aren't intended to shine on the dancefloor, but rather to provoke introspection from its dark production. Santana's hometown of Ciudad Juárez is one of the most violent cities in Mexico, and his EP is a reminder of what it's like to create music in a city at war with drug trafficking, where the hours after curfew are passed with friends and video games. Ultimately, Gauss is a reflection of the border reality that is lived in Mexico.—Valeria Anzaldo
Even if my listening has been colored by the repeated occasions I've imagined that this Swedish Balearic duo's name is some sort of porn award, Sessions II is a strangely sexy record—if your idea of a perfect fuck involves lapping waves, silk sheets, and the prurient bliss of Ash Ra Tempel records. Even if all that isn't your bag, this tantric two-tracker—which plods along gently on puttering drums, then recedes as gentle mystical Environments recording soundalikes and lackadaisical guitars swell around it—is a perfect accompaniment to any activity that involves two consenting adults and a pair of speakers. Highly recommended for those of you out there into rainforests, Steve Roach, post-coital glows.—Josh Baines
Since their inception in 2009, RVNG Intl.'s FRKWYS series has become a kind of fantasy football for people who read The Wire and despise actual football. Previous installments have seen Blues Control jamming with zither-maestro Laraaji, Sun Araw hanging out with reggae legends the Congos, and the formation of what is possibly the world's greatest modular synth supergroup to date, Borden, Ferraro, Godin, Halo, and Lopatin.
This time around, the label has paired the celestial and perennially soothing Suzanne Ciani with fellow Buchla player Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith for a languorous waltz down the Pacific Coast Highway. Sunergy is an unhurried minor masterpiece—a burbling and barely-there set of synth-jams that breathe themselves into the most subtle of beings. This is intricate and understandably ornate music that demands—and rewards—deep listening.—Josh Baines
Critics have largely described the sonic riddles that Takahide Higuchi issues as Foodman as if he were still in the throes of an early fascination with the caffeinated kick drum programming of footwork. But in the years since he debuted back in 2012, he's taken real glee in frustrating those expectations, channelling the twitchy programming he learned from that genre into a barrage of harebrained samples.
His full-length return to the absurdo-futurist imprint Orange Milk, Ez Minzoku, is his most hilarious effort yet—and perhaps his record least linked to footwork, or the dance floor at all for that matter. Within the space of just a few tracks, there's jaw-dropping samples of metal riffs, referee whistles, dial-tone drops, pinched "ow"s, Japanese rapping, and treacly synth lines that sound kind of like Dntel's cotton candy programming for the Postal Service—and sometimes more. It's a joyous cacophony of sounds that shouldn't be able to coexist, let alone produce moments as sublime as the new age-y bliss of "Ure Pill." Mostly, though, it's the sound of cartoon neurons juking at the same speed as his bass drums once did.—Colin Joyce
Emma Burgess-Olson's productions as Umfang tend to be even more multifarious than her DJ sets. On a split earlier this year for the Danish experimental label Phinery, she demonstrated a taste for the totally fucked, tossing up acidic screwballs that lifted her sound away from the dancefloor entirely. Her August release for 1080p, Riffs, is perhaps even more skyward-sounding. Over five tracks, she flits through spacious synth sequences and sparse kick drums; there's an overbearing anxiousness in the air, a sick awareness of the rapidly decreasing oxygen as she drags you closer to the stratosphere. Riffs is the rare record that baffles me every time I play it, both because of its own harrowing internal logic and because of what its triumphs suggest for an artist who hits stranger heights on every release. What earthly realms are left to conquer once you've broken orbit?—Colin Joyce
In the short time that he's been signed to XL Recordings, Oscar Powell has developed a reputation as one of dance music's merry pranksters. Last year, Powell took out a billboard featuring the full text of a sample clearance letter from legendary punk grump Steve Albini that allowed Powell to sample one of his recordings but stated that he "detest[s] club culture as deeply as I detest anything on earth." On Valentine's Day in 2016, he released a new single alongside an interactive website designed to—in the words of a press release—"troll your ex-lover." He announced his debut LP, Sport, in July, over an email exchange with one lucky fan, after he took out another billboard featuring only his email address. Then, when XL sent me a copy, they also sent me a whole watermelon—a reference to the anarcho-Gallagher video for "Jonny," which features a whole lot of obliterated fruit.
All this stuff could feel like gimmickry, but part of the fun of following Powell is that all the goofy ephemera lines up with the music he's been releasing under his surname. Sport is a full-length fulfillment of this strand of his work. Over the course of the record's 14 tracks, he veers between smirking video chat interludes ("Skype"), ipecac acid tracks, borderline electroclash ("Frankie"), and Mark E. Smith-sampling EBM backflips ("Junk"), foregrounding the lysergic, technicolor joy that unselfconscious electronic music can offer. Sport has its jokes, but Powell takes laughing very seriously.—Colin Joyce
My best friend and I have a saying we use to describe things that make us feel unpleasant, out-of-sorts, and ill-at-ease. "The ick" is that feeling you get when your boss reprimands you in front of coworkers, when a crush doesn't text you back, or a significant other says something spiteful during a pointless argument. The debut solo album from Carla Dal Forno, You Know What It's Like, is the perfect antidote for the ick, or maybe it's the perfect soundtrack for wallowing in it. Dal Forno's muffled vocals, the sinister synths, and heavy dub influences all come together in a sickly haze on tracks like "What You Gonna Do Now?" which mimic those self-destructive thoughts that swirl around in your head as you rot away in bed on drizzly, lost Sunday afternoons. It's a ferociously gentle record for moments when you want to question everything, but aren't ready to make any kind of resolution.—Anna Codrea-Rado
Jubilee, born Jessica Gentile, has spent years traversing New York's underground clubs as a DJ and producer, and it shows. Club spaces can often feel divided by genre-specific scenes, but Gentile's debut album, After Hours, rejects those arbitrary lines, instead highlighting the common ground between a diversity of sounds, from trap and hip-hop, to house and Miami bass. "Bass Supply," an album standout featuring Otto Von Schirach, is a slightly silly yet loving tribute to the frenetic Miami bass of Gentile's hometown; lead single "Wine Up" is a short and sensual ode to drinks, friends, and grinding that incorporates dancehall riddims and a cameo by Hoodcelebrityy, who sings "Watching me wine and I get naughty," throughout the track like a cheeky call to arms. No other record this year has captured the spirit, energy, and fun of the dance floor quite like After Hours has.—Britt Julious
While the Chicago-based trio of Natalie Chami, Doug Kaplan, and Maxwell Allison make some of the most engrossingly heavy music coming out of the American experimental underground, they've still got a sense of humor about them. As a case in point, Things Our Bodies Used to Have, their second LP as Good Willsmith, includes a song called "What Goes In The Ocean Goes In You," and another called "Whales Sing Great Melodies With Fantastic Lyrics." But listening to the record itself—captured from a continuous, 46-minute improvisation that the group recorded together, without overdubs—it's the water references that strike you the most.
Fried guitar noodling, haunting vocal loops, drum machines, and miscellaneous electronics layer into terrifying, fathomless swells of sound, then disperse, only to wash up on the shore later and cut the bottom of your foot. For a noise band, Good Willsmith have an unusually delicate, painstaking relationship to texture, but the individual parts never take precedence over the movement of the whole. So while it's tempting to talk about how Things Our Bodies Used to Have succeeds at combining elements of rock, drone, and dance music into a debilitatingly rich, post-genre stew, at end of the day, probably the most important ingredient in the mix is soul.—Emilie Friedlander
While you may not be familiar with the label MikeQ founded all the way back in 2005, chances are you've already come across one of its affiliated artists. If you haven't experienced a DJ set from the ballroom star himself, or GHE20G0TH1K affiliate LSDXOXO, then maybe you've happened upon Skyshaker's "Brogue Wars" mix for NON, or Byrell The Great's regular work as a ball selector in NYC's vogue scenes, recently documented in the 2016 film Kiki. Yet for all the crewmembers' individual accomplishments, Qweendom is the label's first-ever compilation, and it's a mighty statement, all the way from MikeQ's timeless collaboration "Get Sum" with Romanthony to Ash B.'s unshakable "Realness" and LSDXOXO's lusciously haunted "Dope Dick Dealer."
It's not just the shocking levels of talent on hand that make the record so engrossing, though—it's also the undeniable vision of collectivity it presents. Considering the Cox' professed aim to simultaneously raise up underground ballroom artists and protect the scene from mainstream misappropriation, that focus on friendship and community is probably a good strategy, too.—Alexander Iadarola
Right down to the cover of Kyle Hall's head levitating above a white-collar suit and tie, you get a sense that the Detroit wunderkind's sophomore album is about managing one's own independence in a world where other people's moves can often dictate your own. Full of easygoing numbers that feel warm and personal, the album's rejects the industry's idea that music needs any kind of overarching statement. Instead, we're graced with eight tracks made during a time when Hall was a young teen producing beats in his dad's basement—on Joy Street, natch—free to pass the time any way he saw fit, without having to worry about pressures of record deals, international DJ sets, or any other outside interferences. The resulting record is full of that freewheeling, youthful spirit—a testament to curiosity, imagination, joy. Ah, to be a kid again.—David Garber
With Furiosa, Sweden's Kablam has blessed us with a mixtape of aggressive, beautifully sharp noises—easily accessible through its sheer energy, once you've managed to deal with the bittersweet, elegant brutality of the sounds. Imagine a mass orgy, but with aliens, and the aliens are made of metal, and actually the aliens are tanks, tanks with three legs, and they're currently marching into your city. So it's something like War of the Worlds, but thankfully, without Tom Cruise.—Thomas Vorreyer
Maybe it's hubris to enlist a bunch of veteran collaborators—producer and multi-instrumentalist Jim O'Rourke, influential guitarist Arto Lindsay, the composer Keith Fullerton Whitman, and even Ricardo Villalobos—on a record made under your own name. Maybe it's hubris to lead them through long-form music that touches on prog-rock, techno, jazz improv, minimalism, and more. But judging by how focused and powerful Hubris turned out, Oren Ambarchi's ambition wasn't grand delusion, but justified confidence.
Comprising two extended jams divided by a short interlude, Ambarchi's repetitive rhythms and electronic loops simultaneously hold steady and rise skyward, culminating in a final stretch wherein he and Lindsay do an ecstatic guitar battle until a female voice bluntly says "STOP!" It's an abrupt way to end, but you get the sense that they weren't given a cutoff, Ambarchi and company would've kept playing forever.—Marc Masters
The third album by nü-Caribbean superheroes Systema Solar is their most political album to date, but it's also their most pop. Produced by Juan Carlos Pellegrino atop the country's magical mountain—the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta—Rumbo a Tierra is a journey through the electrified sounds of Colombia old and new.
Among its many transports, there are dives through wavy electro guaracha like "Rumbera," the earthy crunch of champeta-EDM anthems like "Mi Caribe," and future-bass bangers like "Aguazero." But the latter track also illuminates the group's more earthbound aims, detailing the drought that hit Colombia's Guajira region hard this year and left dozens dead. Likewise, "Somos la Tierra" is an electrocumbia protest song that takes a stand against the massive mining project La Colosa, which threatens to wreak havoc on the rich biodiversity and agricultural heritage of the city of Cajamarca. Systema Solar's militant dance records have always aimed to impact the hips and the head. But this time around, fueled by a tense political climate, the dancing feels increasingly urgent.—Nicolás Vallejo
Ever since Leon Vynehall released his breakthrough LP Music for the Uninvited back in 2014 expectations for a possible sequel were high. This year Vynehall delivered a follow-up—but people probably weren't expecting a "gritty reboot." From the jump Rojus is gloomier than the material that preceded it. Even when he's making dreamy tropical bliss like "Saxony," hypnotizing piano house like "Paradisea," or borderline hits like "Blush," the songs drive into one another, colliding head-on in wonderfully nightmarish fantasies, as dark as they are detailed. The only problem is that Vynehall will have to deal with rising expectations yet again, but he doesn't seem to care about the pressure. After all, it's the second entry in a trilogy that's always the hardest to nail.—Philipp Kutter
If Sean Booth and Rob Brown's latest album as Autechre seems intimidating to you, it's probably because they wanted it to. With its five-part, four-plus-hour runtime, tracklist full of gibberish, unforgivingly monochromatic cover art, and price point upwards of $50 (just for all the .wav files), elseq 1-5 has some pretty obvious barriers to entry. But it's been a couple of decades since the duo made anything easy on listeners, so the fact that this collection—released in the pitch black year of 2016—is devoid of anything that might easily be identified as "beauty" or "happiness" feels pretty par for the course.
But for all elseq 1-5's unpredictable, overwhelming noise, its gravity is like a black hole, beckoning me to certain crushing demise every time I boot up iTunes. It starts with "feed1"—the album's first, but far from its only, 11-plus minute gauntlet of spindly tendrils of Max/MSP-derived digital noise. From there, the record becomes an exercise in surrender, of letting the harrowing sounds wash over you, studying them for moments of unexpected symmetry. Then you rejoice half an hour or so later, when the erratically programmed pieces stumble into something that resembles a rhythm. It's a record that celebrates the small delights to be found in chaos, but you have to give yourself over to it to find them. Dive into the void; find joy.—Colin Joyce
Karma probably warns against glorifying an album as brazenly titled as The Best, but to assume this Omar-S album is limited to self-aggrandizing would be to miss out on one of 2016's most deceptive LPs and the finest of his career. His long-held role as an irreverent purveyor of robust, raucous house records remains intact, yet the album introduces shades of his character hitherto untapped—or at least underappreciated. From the sparse, ghoulish chill of "Take Ya Pik, Nik!!!" to the reverberating judders of "Smash," The Best sees Omar-S in world-building mode, taking his inimitable knack for big house tunes and lacquering them with aching pathos—bravado, weighed down by a world-weary melancholy.
There's something honest, and searching about the production—as tracks like "Chama Piru's" start out declarative but quickly descend into psychedelic internal monologues. It's a record that speaks to the heavy heat of summer nights, the promise and destruction they bring in equal measure. It's a record which does exactly what it says on the tin, if not quite in the ways you'd expect it to.—Angus Harrison
Yves Tumor has always been difficult to pin down. Born Sean Bowie, the globetrotting Tennessee-raised producer has made music under a variety of guises over the years, including under the aliases Shanti and Bekelé Berhanu. During a recent trip to Berlin, I would often spot the artist's strikingly tall figure flashing across late-night dancefloors like a chimera in the night, jacking his lanky limbs to brutally hard techno. Serpent Music, his debut on the experimental-leaning label PAN, shows Bowie's softer, more meditative side, while remaining just as strange and idiosyncratic as his previous work.
"The songs come from a much more emotional and very vulnerable place," Bowie said in the album's press release. The same release noted that the 12-track LP is about "paranoia, social anxiety, and missing loved ones." In practice, however, these themes are only approached obliquely; Bowie drenches various field recordings, spoken word, and his own falsetto in deep wells of reverb, lo-fi static, and trembling guitar chords, making it hard to make out the words behind these layers of noise. Album highlight "The Feeling When You Walk Away" is equal parts soulful and surreal, as if Blood Orange was floating on a cloud of purple haze, writing bluesy love songs to a chorus of Arca's bleating sheep. Like the artist himself, Serpent Music is a slithering, complex work that unfurls over repeated encounters—but the effect is infinitely moving, like painting a dreamy landscape with hot streaks of raw emotion.—Michelle Lhooq
When Max Graef and Glenn Astro get together to do anything, the vibe is always the same: two close pals and lovers of dusty house, 90s hip-hop culture, jazz, and sleazy disco, having the time of their lives. You can feel their amiable chemistry in any one of their countless, "Where'd the hell you find that track!?" b2b sets, as well as through the efforts of the bizarro, sample-rich label they run with Delfonic, Money $ex Records.
The Yard Work Simulator, their collaborative debut LP, continues the type of familial vibe that can't be orchestrated by any A&R exec or festival booker. The record doesn't necessarily speak to the dancefloor, but it does act as a portal to the joyous sounds, vibrant colors, and styles that occupy the duo's brains—in this case, jazz, funk, house, hip-hop and other genres home to aqueous synthesizers and rib-cracking percussion. While some albums are built for you to dance to, play in your car, or belt lyrics in the shower, this one's more like the guys are hanging out in their living room drinking beers, and you're invited. Naturally, you're still invited to use it for all those aforementioned things, though.—David Garber
Jamal Moss's output as Hieroglyphic Being in recent years has been pretty universally strong, but The Disco's of Imhotep—his August outing for the Ninja Tune sublabel Technicolor—is the Chicago producer's best to-date. It's a powerful document of raw, unfiltered house; its interstellar intimations are a reminder of the healing core essence of dance music and of music writ large. Like many of his productions, these pieces have a wonderfully sci-fi feeling to them—jittery, squelching, club music from somewhere out in the universe's outer reaches. Tracks with titles like "The Way of the Tree of Life" land with colossally cosmic thuds—like a spiritual pulsar, bridging the gap between it and the thousands of years of ecstatic music that presaged it. But approach the monolith and look closely, you'll see its "future", not nostalgia, that's written across its surface.—Thomas Vorreyer
On his latest release for powerhouse Lisbon label Principe Discos, the batida pioneer expands his palette to account for the banner year he's had touring Europe and America—"Unsound" references the downbeat techno he encountered at its namesake festival, for example. "2685" blends delirious throwback rave elements with a flute line as startling and refreshing as a spray of mist to the face. My personal favorite highlight is "Tarraxo Everyday," with loping drums and a New Age-y synth line that sounds ripped from a hazy Laraaji jam session. "I have a notion when a song's going to be immediate," said DJ Marfox when we spoke with him earlier this year. "It's a beautiful feeling." On Chapa Quente, this sense of tactile joy is hard to miss.—Ezra Marcus
Dean Blunt doesn't do himself any favors. One of contemporary music's most intriguing, experimental, confrontational, and genuinely challenging artists is all too often thought of in terms of jesterdom—an arch-prankster who's wrapped himself and his work in meters and meters of ironied bubblewrap. BBF's introductory incantation (the pitched-down voice of Craig David intoning "This makes me proud to be British" over and over) and the intentionally terrible Oxford Street tat-shop aesthetic the record came draped in may seem like surreal goofs, but dig into—and past—these pointed jokes, and you'll find one of the most baldly and boldly affecting albums of 2016. Even before Brexit underscored these concerns, Blunt and his cohorts (Gassman D and DJ Escrow) used this dark, dubby, delirious, and deeply British album as a way of questioning the nature of nationalism and what it means to be "from" anywhere. England's burning and Dean Blunt's standing in the shadows, mouthing, "I told you so."—Josh Baines
Of all the producers to send techno through a trash compactor since the turn of the decade, Dylan Scheer has a particular knack for embracing mirth instead of murk. Sixth Stitch is, like many of the releases in this post-millennial wave of harsh noise-indebted club music, a collection of mutated and unsightly squeaks and squelches, sanded off and forced into shapes that more readily resemble techno's oft-unforgiving gridmap. The general formula here is to take unsettling sounds—a synth crackling like a wildfire, trashed tape ambience—and lash them to a reliable kick drum, granting them propulsion, momentum, and maybe even jubilance. There's something so gleefully off about Scheer's particular mutilations—pay particular attention to the way the synth notes heave and wheeze around the beat like marathoners at the 25-mile mark on opener "Far She"—that you can't help but crack a Richard D. James-sized smile.—Colin Joyce
Following a prolific 2015, Nicolas Jaar's second proper LP, Sirens, finds the Chilean-American composer looking inwardly to better understand his complicated relationships with the two countries he's called home. The cover includes the Spanish phrase "Ya dijimos no, pero el sí está en todo"—which translates to "We already said no but the yes is in everything"—a reference to the 1988 Chilean referendum which ended Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, overtop a piece by the producer's father, the controversial visual artist Alfredo Jaar.
If this all feels heavy conceptually, rest assured Sirens also features some of his most layered, striking music to date. The sprawling, 11-minute opener "Killing Time"—which alludes to the arrest of Muslim teenager Ahmed Mohamed after he brought a homemade alarm clock to his Texas high school—begins with the sounds of flapping flags and shattering glass, before unraveling into somber piano melodies and static flickers. "No" weaves together lilting cumbia rhythms, and samples of Peruvian harpist and dialogue from a recorded conversation between a young Jaar and his father, into a ghostly collage. Elsewhere, "The Governor" and "Three Sides of Nazareth" brim with the proto-punk urgency of Suicide, bleating saxophone squalls adding to the former's underlying sense of paranoia.
Nowhere is the tightrope balance between personal and political commentary more evident though than on closing track "History Lesson," which sees Jaar adopting a doo-wop falsetto croon to deliver an incisive bullet point tutorial. "Chapter one: We fucked up / Chapter two: We did it again, and again, and again, and again," he sings, a sentiment which rang even louder in the months following its release.—Max Mertens
2016 marks 20 years since Robert Hood first released music as Floorplan and in the time that's passed since then the world might have changed beyond all recognition—Floorplan has even accrued an extra member, Hood's daughter Lyric—but the essential blueprints of the project have remained unwavering. Just as on Paradise three years ago, just as on the Sanctified EP two years before that, Victorious sees Robert Hood building truly biblical dance music. Hood's Christian faith is a facet of his character which is never far away on Victorious, most obviously expressed on the evangelical roof-raising of "The Heavens & The Earth." But beyond the explicitly religious moments, the entire album is flooded with a maximalism that could only have come from a higher power—the euphoria on tracks like "Sun in the Sky" evoke an elation which sound so deliriously celebratory, they could leave you dumbstruck. It's the work of a producer who, like no other, puts the fear of God on a 4/4 beat.—Angus Harrison
Elysia Crampton's name is the one that gets first billing on Demon City, but she's been pretty clear that she couldn't have done this alone. On the back of the record, she lists the small community of friends and artists she worked with on it not just as guests but co-conspirators—it's not "feat.," but "with," Chino Amobi, Why Be, Rabit, and Lexxi. The album was reflective, she told me earlier this year, of a process of "being-with." She enlisted her friends as a way of figuring out how their support of her informs "[her] own autonomy, [her] own agency."
Self-determination is a difficult topic to untangle on a record full of collaborations, especially given that it ends on the white-hot sunrise of "Red Eyez," a track made by the London-based Lexxi alone. But the answer to her question proves relatively intuitive here, both because all of her collaborators are longtime pals, and because nearly overstuffed and nauseous pieces like "Dummy Track" demonstrate she's a natural for the director's chair—knowing just how much detail to creep in before cutting it off. Like most of her work, an atmosphere of optimistic longing underpins the proceedings, but with the help of her friends, her work feels more impactful than it's ever been—a testament to the power of pushing ahead, with friends on your side.—Colin Joyce
The Bells begins with a half-remembered melody, a shadowy prelude-that-never-was to a 2014 track about getting fucked up. It sets a precedent for an album that revels in its weightlessness, and a producer who seems to defy standard conventions of time. Kornel Kovacs plays with this temporal slipperiness over the course his debut double LP—the first two sides are a sparkling FM tribute to 80s synth-pop and funky disco-house, while the second slab is a glittering journey through disco atmospherics. Meanwhile, the album title refers to another decade, and specifically to Jeff Mills's seminal 1997 techno track "The Bells," a hypnotic roller which shares little in common with Kovacs' record, other than its layered and organic approach. All of this makes for an album which confidently knows it can't be easily bracketed by epoch or genre. So don't think about it too hard, throw this one on at home while the album art cheekily smiles back, and do as one of its timeless tracks implores you: "Dance... While The Record Spins."—Jesse Weiss
Overflowing with four-on-the-floor rhythms, washed-out bass lines, and crate-plucked samples, Kaytranada's music sits somewhere between the booty-bouncing beats of house and the funk of 90s R&B. It takes cues from the artists he grew up listening to as the child of immigrant parents in Montreal, but it also sounds fresher than anything you'll find on the radio today.
His long-awaited debut album, 99.9%, pushes that outside-of-time logic even further, setting rising talents like rapper Vic Mensa and jazz experimentalists BadBadNotGood alongside unsung veterans like Craig David and Phonte of Little Brother. Whereas lesser producers would be overshadowed by such a cabal of guests, here, they only serve to accentuate the producer's kaleidoscopic, percussion-first instrumentals. "You're the One," a collaboration with vocalist Syd tha Kyd, is a frontrunner for the best distillation of the Kaytranada sound. From the hand claps, to the Internet co-founder's feather-light coos, to its reverberating synth bass, the track flows through you in an instant, infectious, loving rush of music.—Britt Julious
Brian Eno famously first conceived of the idea of ambient music while bedridden after he was hit by a car. Unable to get across the room to turn up the stereo—so the story goes—he found himself annoyed by, then enamored of music that blended into the room's preexisting sonic environment. The genre he proposed was to be—as he wrote in the liner notes for Music for Airports—as "ignorable as it is interesting." But the beauty of For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)—the producer Brian Leeds' first album-length foray into ambient music—is in its apparent rejection of this idea.
Leeds has said that he too uses this music to relax and recover while on his intercontinental travels between DJ sets. But this album is nestled more in the lineage of Hiroshi Yoshimura's new age-adjacent tone pieces than the delicate drones of the Eno strain of ambience. There's just a whole lot more movement on For Those of You than you might expect from an ambient record, from spectrally swelling synthesizers and gently sequenced electronics, to pieces that sound like sleepwalking club tracks with the drums skillfully excised. Instead of augmenting the spaces you inhabit, this gauzy latticework breathes and coalesces into something darker, wispier, more cocoon-like. The album's not a way of coping with the world around you; it's another world entirely.—Colin Joyce
Earlier this year, sitting in the lobby of the Roxy Hotel in Lower Manhattan, ANOHNI informed me that she was going on an "eyes-wide-open" campaign.
"How wide can I hold my eyes, how much can I try to see, knowing that I'll never see it all?" she mused. The former Antony and the Johnsons mastermind was referring, of course, not to the physical faculty of sight, but to a kind of psychic equivalent of it—a willingness to hold open a space in her heart and her mind for the alarming headlines about American foreign policy and corporate surveillance and climate change she'd been reading in the news for the past 15 years, to allow the terror and sadness they elicited in her to sink in, to refuse to look away. Later on, I realized that she'd offered me a pretty perfect summation of what it means to be an artist—not to report the news, but to channel what it feels like to live it, to articulate what it feels like to be human in the midst of, or in spite of, the political, social, and economic realities of one's time.
Hopelessness, her sixth album, embraces this definition of art more literally than most, using palatial, club-inspired production from Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never as a launch pad for some of the most disarmingly direct social commentary our generation has heard from an artist. She sings a song about Obama that calls the president by name. She sings a song from the perspective of a young girl whose family has been killed by an American drone bomb, and another about how incremental temperature changes may be slowly killing off species of flora and fauna.
Were it not for the motherly cradle of her voice and the ecstatic bombast of the synthetic horns and strings, it would all probably be too much to take in—and to many listeners, it probably was. But after the election, it's hard to avoid the feeling that while many of us spent that past few years hermetically sealed inside our hyper-liberal Facebook bubbles, blissfully ignorant of the things we didn't want to see, ANOHNI was already looking. That didn't make Hopelessness any less quixotic, any less crazy of an undertaking; it just reminded us that it was only as crazy as the world that ANOHNI is singing about.—Emilie Friedlander