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10. Autechre – NTS Sessions 1-4
I don’t really even know what to say about this monumental eight hour slab of nigh-impenetrable music. It’s just astounding from end to end, of course, but to say that this is “good” is like saying that the ocean is wet. The music contained here is often dark, unapproachable, and best experienced in total isolation. It takes time to digest; it takes time just to listen once though. It’s a commitment for the listener in every way a piece of music can be, challenging in form and content.
The key is to digest it in two hour chunks. Each of the four sets is roughly (texturally? spiritually? metaphysically?) connected, so it’s best to attack them one at a time. A two hour album is still massive, but it’s doable, right? If not, then this music is probably not for you. But for anyone who’s followed Autechre from their hip-hop influenced early IDM outings on up through today’s marathon deep space experimentation, this is a long form, slow motion thrill ride. There are so many weird corners of sound to explore, get stuck in, loop and escape from within these densely packed sets. Songs range from a few minutes to a full hour, each billowing out and erasing time passage like a drug or a dream. There’s no way to prepare yourself if you haven’t kept up with the iconoclastic duo, so just hit play on the first set and see if you can handle it. This is heavy in all the best ways.
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9. Tangents – New Bodies
Tangents evoke this intangible feeling of wonder and openhearted goodwill that I cannot put my finger on. They make post-rock inflected jazz in the vein of The Necks and even early Tortoise but pack it with nervous knife-edge energy; everything here feels like it’s on the verge of ripping into a million pieces, like an airlock explosion in space. It’s like Cosmos if that spaceship of the imagination was running past light speed into weird, psychedelic uncharted galaxies. It’s like if the groove aspect of that mid-90s Chicago post-rock scene had absolutely overpowered the rock aspect and triumphantly blasted into the sky for a neon constellation shuffle. It’s just a really fun, immaculately produced spacey jazz album deeply indebted to ambient and krautrock as much as the lush, 1970s spiritual epics from Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. It’s simply one of the most compulsively listenable albums release in 2018 in any genre.
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8. Robyn – Honey
I thought it’d be impossible for Robyn to top her stupendous 2010 album Body Talk, the one that seemed to inspire an entire decade’s worth of imitation and evolution in vocal dance music. Tracks like “Dancing On My Own” became generational anthems in the time between that album and this one. Yet somehow, even without anything as singularly catchy as the top few singles on its predecessor, Honey has arrived so fully realized, so perfectly polished, so conceptually whole that it instantly became my favorite Robyn album. The production sensually blooms into nearly ambient territory while remaining anchored by solid beats and grooves, providing a pillowy texture for her dreamy vocals to glide through. This is the sound of the often-angry Swedish singer finding acceptance, peace, and real happiness for once, finally. It’s the kind of sobbing-with-relief happiness that feels absolutely earned. She’s grasping it tightly while acknowledging that it may not last. But she’s never gonna be broken hearted, ever again.
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7. Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
At one point while listening to Earl Sweatshirt’s latest album for the fourth time in a row, it occurred to me Some Rap Songs could be the answer to a question. “What if Donuts had vocals?” I’m not saying that it’s as good as J Dilla’s timeless masterpiece. I’m saying that, more than any rap album I’ve ever heard , this flows with the same elliptical, amorphous, looping, psychedelic, damn near ecstatic energy. Songs begin and end imperceptively, shifting through moods and sound palettes, bouncing and ducking like water running over earthquaking terrain. It’s a cohesive stream of consciousness, a inseparable dance of production and vocals over 24 minutes that demands immediate repeat plays. With the short running time, it’s easy to just loop and loop this set, leaning in closer, getting familiar with the nooks and crannies of its textures and tonal detours. Earl is in the best shape he’s ever been, nestled deep in unstuck-in-time production territory. I wish I could say more, but it was the last album I heard this year before finalizing this list. Just listen, then listen again. There’s time.
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6. Demdike Stare – Passion
Deconstructed club music? Apocalyptic noise techno? Sentient computer monster music? I was trying to think of some clever, catchy name to call this sound that Demdike Stare have evolved into, but it’s pointless. They are constantly undermining, slicing apart, disintegrating known forms of dance music and building their own nocturnal machines out of the ashes. I’ve followed with rapt attention from their earliest occult doom days, where techno was more of a structural than a stylistic idea, to their Testpressing series of singles, in which they worked out seemingly every permutation of dancefloor destruction, wringing brutally effective mindbenders out of traditional beat science. I felt my love for the duo renewed with the second-best-album-of-2016 comeback full length Wonderland barging full speed into nearly-recognizable techno textures, using the familiar palette to radical new ends.
So when Passion dropped by surprise one day, and I managed to grab a copy of the colored vinyl before it sold out within an hour, I felt pretty confident that I would at least not be let down by my impulse purchase. But as I hit play on the digital edition that afternoon, I realized I was having an equally powerful reaction to their latest full length (or double EP, as they’re calling it for some reason). Just as they moved into the colors of techno while keeping their distinct shape on the last album, they’ve now knocked down all remaining walls between various dance subgenres with atomic bass and their signature radical drum programming. Shredding footwork, two-step, techno, everything dark and heavy under the stars, they’re still unafraid of disrupting and reshaping their own music mid-stream. These songs constantly backflip, twist, mutating into surprise forms that give whiplash until, right at the end we see how it all fits perfectly in retrospect. It’s an album constantly pulling the rug out from under itself and the listener, never content to settle for long, building each moment until its peak energy and then jackknifing in a new direction. So many times I think a new track has started, until suddenly the music shifts back and I realize it was an interlude – or I’m actually two tracks on. After two dozen listens, I still haven’t mapped it all out. But I feel compelled to explore it more.
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5. Deepchord – Immersions
I don’t really know what to say here. This music exemplifies dub techno. It is a perfect little document of the genre, a pair of peak-level tunes that could easily make my 32 best dub techno albums list if I were to redo it today. It feels like an environment to inhabit, or at least a curated, slow motion trip through this environment. Immersions has the most appropriate title of anything on this entire list. This pair of longform, minimalist, ambient dub techno tracks is the most immersive listening experience of the year. Deepchord, aka Rod Modell, is well known for being able to craft entire worlds of sound, for being, to some, a better sound designer than a musician, because he’s really that good. But I’ve always thought he was the heir apparent to the Basic Channel throne, having a better grasp on the hypnotic DNA of dub techno than anyone else in the game. His music is designed for obliterating time, lifting the listener right out of their body, out of any sense of the here and now; it envelops the listener as a total sensory experience, mind and body. It’s achingly pleasant too, something that can’t be said of most masterpiece material. This is so very easy to put on loop and live inside all day. I’ve done it, and I’ll do it again. Taken in context of the dense, fathomless depth of Modell’s own catalog, much less the entirety of the dub techno genre itself, it’s hard to explain to the layman what sets this album apart. It must be experienced.
To put it most simply and dumbly, I’ll just say that it balances at the perfect triangle between dub techno and ambient music and environmental sound design. It just feels perfect for what it is.
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4. Aphex Twin – Collapse EP
I think I said it pretty well in my review earlier this year:
In under thirty minutes, Collapse manages to expand the boundaries of what Aphex Twin is capable of, leaping forward in the same way each of his five original full-length albums did. The DNA is visible as we look back – rapid-fire breakbeats and contrasting slow-motion textures, classical instrumentation bent into futuristic shapes, metallic and pixelated and organic sounds weaving together to dizzying effect – but he performs real magic here, with radical shifts that transform each of the four (five on the digital edition) tracks like Pokemon evolving into new and unexpected forms. Every song begins with recognizable Aphex building blocks before detonating, ripping open some black hole in themselves, collapsing all elements, and pulling the listener through to the other side. It’s the sound of change itself, chimerical music brought to life, discovering itself as it goes along.
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3. Skee Mask – Compro
Pure, unadulterated intelligent dance music here. This is what the genre was named for, a couple decades and change too early. Skee mask folds in so many brilliant little wrinkles and unexpected moves, a bewildering array of novelties somehow blended perfectly into a grand cohesive arc. This is electronic music storytelling on a deliberately wordless plane, all feeling and heft and heart and gut-punches through a rollicking adventure, through a meticulously crafted sound-world.
The focus on rhythm here is key; it renders all the experimentation, the extraterrestrial timbres, the sudden structural shifts, all the weird tones into something head nodding, delicious, relentless. Skee Mask is first and foremost a master of percussion, rhythm and bass, the foundational elements of dance music. That grasp of the endless scale of groove informs every aspect of this music, giving something otherwise exploratory and dorky a ceaseless beating heart of courage. These songs leap forward, fluid with grace, skipping over arrhythmic peers right into the hearts of anyone who gives them the time.
This is a true techno epic, the kind of narrative masterpiece rarely attempted by younger artists. In ambition only is it a throwback to 1990s IDM astronauts; in every other respect, this is dance music for tomorrow in all the right ways.
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2. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer
I’ve been a fan of Janelle Monáe since her debut EP in 2008, and even though I geeked the fuck out about both of her prior full-length albums, nothing could have prepared me for the ecstatic energy of Dirty Computer. This is Prince worship done right, used as inspirational fuel, taken to the next level. This is future funk. This is wildly ambitious, bright, bold, beautiful pop music made for the forces of good, equality, love, understanding. This is the most dystopian, yet most optimistic album of the year.
This is Janelle Monáe’s Purple Rain, too.
I’m normally loathe do do such a:b::c:d comparisons, but it just really fits here. She’s always been a funk phenom, dropping android-filled astrophysical pop gems, but she’s never been this directly dance oriented, primed for radio domination. This is the album where she drops the personas, the radio-play narratives, all of the devices she hid behind on a dizzying run of concept releases. No longer is she a robot on the run in a cyberpunk future; she’s simply Janelle, a queer woman of color in 2018, reconciling with her world while trying to build a better one. The multi-track suites are gone; so are the instrumental interludes and the complicated mythology. In their place is an artist’s pure ascension, blasting past the potential she’d shown all along, with renewed energy and passion and the the talent to back it all up.
This is the album I needed to hear in 2018, a zeitgeisty amalgamation of everything good about the world today, a reminder that there’s a future and we’re part of it – but it’s also the most flat-out fun album of the year. Everyone I play it to has a good time. Her lyrics are at their sharpest, her singing its best, and her rapping is legit. The vast majority of tracks here get stuck in my head on any given day. For this reason, it’s easily my most-played album of the year too. It lived in my car for months and still makes regular appearances on long drives. Even my wife loves it!
I don’t really need to talk about the music here because it can be experienced in its most intense form below, as an “emotion picture,” which is basically a feature-length music video. Just like Prince before her, she uses the format as a vehicle for her full ambitions, weaving the incredible music pieces together with a loose dystopian sci-fi plot. So that’s where the mythology went! To me, it was a smart move to separate the music from the narrative, leaving us with the best of both worlds: a fire breathing pop monster of an album that requires no context to enjoy, and a wonderfully weird Afrofuturist narrative for the dedicated fans to revel in. If you haven’t already heard Dirty Computer and you’ve got a free hour, just hit play below. It’s impossible not to leave grinning.
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1. Francis Harris – Trivial Occupations
Ever press play and know, instinctively, within a few minutes, that an album is going to be impossibly special to you?
That happens to me from time to time, but the phenomenon is more and more rare as I age. It’s especially rare coming from an artist I’m already familiar with, but here we are. After finding a place on the best music of 2014 list, Francis Harris fell into a comfortable rotation in my music library. His meditative deep house excursions filled in a spot next to DJ Sprinkles, where contemplation and spiritual matters can let loose and dance a little. At their best, his songs provided a less confrontational side of this vanguard sound, letting the sorrow and pain and small, hard-won beauties of life seep through the music, rather than command it, like on Sprinkles’ masterpiece Midtown 120 Blues. His pair of albums, Leland and Minutes of Sleep, are made for deeply personal listening, alone and usually with headphones, or on a long solo drive in the rain or snow. They were and remain soul music to my ears.
Trivial Occupations, on the other hand, feels like soulmate music. This album brings everything that my heart of heart desires, things I never knew I needed, things that make my innermost self hum at just the right frequency to feel elevated, transported, beyond this life. It brings a perfect evocation of ego death to my mind, the total unraveling of pale earthly concerns, clarity and peace. It is tumultuous and sad, confused and confusing, rhythmic and adrift, always searching and asking and listening. It is made of the finest ingredients, including vibraphone arpeggios and stratospheric trumpet flights and clouds of cello and piano; even impressionistic jazz vocals float by for a stretch. Everything is as naturalistic and organically connected as possible; dream logic segues from one deeply personal moment to the next, tapping into optimism and fear and cautious, injured love, bubbling with kosmiche pulses and half-forgotten childhoods. It’s bursting with an empathetic urge to reach out and touch, but it’s content to swirl inside and stew on its ideas until it feels good and ready. There’s no hesitation here, only meditation. Only dreams and memories and the feeling of time, the perspective that it brings.
Trivial Occupations is enormous. Nothing else felt so monumental – emotionally, stylistically, thematically, atmospherically – this entire year. Nothing else felt so directly zeroed in on how I’m approaching life right now. Nothing else felt so spiritually satisfying, so soul nourishing; no other album asks me to be a better listener, a better person, each time I spin it.
Every single time I listen, I hear something new buried in this labyrinthine structure. Sometimes it’s the exotic joy of ambient dancehall on “Dalloway,” a collaboration with Cameroon-born singer Kaïssa. Sometimes it’s the impressively sneaky way that genuine deep bass rhythms work their way into the album around the halfway point, cresting with a handful of ghostly house stompers, giving the impression of even more distance covered in the span of this album’s great, cinematic arc. Sometimes it’s just the astounding, nigh-magical way that Harris has mixed so many disparate elements, including live instrumentation by Emil Abramyan on cell, Leah Lazonick on piano, Greg Paulus with the neon nocturnal trumpet sounds, Rob Reddy on tenor saxophone, Genevieve Marentette’s Zen-like vocals, Dave Harrison of Darkside on guitar, and Will Shore’s key vibraphone presence. Most of all, every second on this set reveals Harris himself as an artist more fully than any project he’s engaged in so far. He is the air itself, the space between everything, within and without every element on record. His unmistakable deep house sound has successfully evolved into something truly indefinable, and I hope he never goes back.
Trivial Occupations is frighteningly easy to become lost in. I find myself with a spare hour, almost any given day, and I hit play, and before I realize it I’m halfway through the early twelve minute opus, “St. Catherine and the Calm,” whisked away in thought and abstract exploration, working things out in my head or philosophizing about all the potential futures out there. It is, like Deepchord’s much more narrowly focused set, a profoundly immersive experience. But instead of creating one environment and dropping the listener inside, Harris crafts an entire world and guides us through it, ensuring that we hit every major landmark regardless of how meandering our path. To listen is to be subsumed. To repeat is to recognize the blooming of a true and necessary musical romance.