Carrying on the long journey through the best musical publications of the past year, we arrive to the important chapter of electronic music, which is by large one of the most heterogeneous but at the same time one that always manages to give us great surprises and which usually brings with it an healthy dose of experimentation.
The judgment that I had made in my head about 2017 was of a fairly irregular year. Alongside some periods that have been positive and rich of interesting releases, there were others which resulted extremely flat, with very few if not even no significant album. But when I found myself assembling and selecting the top 10 albums of the year, I had to recognize that in absolute terms, the one which has just ended was an extremely good year for electronic music.
Let’s see then which are the ten best electronic music records published in 2017, ranked from the bottom to the top.
WHAT IF by Hauschka
We start this list of the ranked albums with an LP that was really hard to classify. It’s included in the electronic category beacause of a greater assonance with the genre, but to be honest in this musical work there is really a lot more than just electronics. Therefore, defining What If as a simple electronic album is somehow a limitation and it could be also misleading for some listeners.
German pianist Volker Bertelmann, who’s the man behind the stage name Hauschka, is mostly known for his compositions for prepared piano, i.e. a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects on or between the strings (in this case scraps of aluminum, ping-pong balls and other household items). On his new album, which is the eighth of his career, Hauschka plays the prepared piano in combination of other keyboards instruments such as a Yamaha’s high-tech player piano and a 1970s-vintage Roland analog synthesizer, and such a blending of new and old Technologies is used by the artist to generate singular but still accessible pieces of modern music. The real peculiarity of this author is that he transforms the piano into a mechanical instrument: a source of sounds which are at times delicate and sometimes disturbing. The result is a combination of multiple layers of minimal and introspective music which manage to evoke different and sometimes contrasting feelings.
PLUNGE by Fever Ray
Danis singer and producer Karin Dreijer has always created works that lie on the thin border between traditional music and experimentation and this happens both when she plays with her broter in the electronic duo The Knife and when she frees all his creative spirit in the solo project named Fever Ray. Her new album Plunge – which arrived as a surprise in last October – makes no exception.
Plunge is the second album from Fever Ray and it follows the debut LP that was released more than six years ago. From listening to her record it is clear that during this time the Swedish artist has acquired further courage and confidence in her own talents. First, we recognize a greater variety of styles and references in the songs of the album, but we can also appreciate – much more than in the debut work – her beautiful voice, which today is much less hidden under layers of effects and alterations.
Plunge is definitely an interesting and engaging album, perhaps with the only limit of challenging the listener to go through extremely different genres and styles. Basically, aside to some more accessible tracks we find a series of much more experimental songs, not always at the same level of the others.
WORLD EATER by Blanck Mass
Blank Mass is the electronic solo project by the English DJ and producer Benjamin John Power, who is mainly known for being one of the two founders of the experimental duo Fuck Buttons (where he plays together with Andrew Hung). World Eater is the new album released by Blank Mass, and the third in the discography of this music project (there are actually a number of other releases as EPs and soundtracks).
For those who are familiar with the earlier work by this artist, both when he plays alone or within the Fuck Buttons, you know what to expect: a sonic attack with mesmeric repetitions and industrial inserts. And this record, in fact, is no exception. The album contains seven interesting tracks that move between noise and experimentation, all seasoned with a good dose of sonic violence.
A particular aspect of this album is that Power tried to work with a limited set of electronic tools, trying to focus the development of his songs with a small number of effects. And the result is very interesting and enjoyable to listen.
UNUNIFORM by Tricky
Conceived in Russia and produced in Berlin (his new adopted capital), the new LP by English trip-hop master Tricky is maybe one of the more claustrophobic and dark of the thirteen records in his discography, as indeed announced by the same album cover. The production notes tell us about an artist that embarked into a journey to confront his legacy: history, family – even death itself. And in all of this, he found the strangest, least familiar thing – peace.
The LP has received mixed reactions from the critics and surely it doesn’t have much to do with the early masterpieces of the artist. But these were other times, for Tricky and for us too. And if it remains always a great pleasure to brush up the great successes of this artist and play them to brighten a special moment of the day, it is however Tricky’s last album the one that can play the soundtrack of our times.
SOIREE DELUXE by Tape Five
Last year we’ve seen a clear resurgence of high quality electro-swing and it is not by chance that we have in this chart, one after the other, two worthy representatives of this musical genre. German collective Tape Five claim to be the co-inventors of the electro-swing and Soiree Deluxe is the 6th studio album of the project.
Beyond the bold statements from the band, it is beyond doubt that these guys have found the perfect recipe to mix together virbant electronic beats with swing jazz, bossa nova, reggae and other multiple influences. The album is a collection of refreshing tracks that are enriched with marvellous performance from very skilled musicians (mostly horn sections and singers). A special positive characteristic of the album is the high number of very good tracks that you will find inside. Very rarely I find myself liking so many tracks from a single work, and this is one of these few cases.
THE BURNING SPIDER by Parov Stelar
Parov Stelar is the stage name for Marcus Füreder, an Austrian musician, producer and DJ which gained popularity and success in the electronics industry as one of the pioneers of “electro-swing”. In his productions he mixes with great skill disparate elements from house music, dance and even some fragments of jazz. It’s worth saying that Parov Stelar is Austria’s most successful international artist and won 7 Amadeus Austrian Music Awards. His unique sound, his specific approach to music production and the unorthodox combination of musical genres soon made him the star of an uprising scene.
In the last years he released a number of good and captivating albums, almost one every year. The album he published in 2017 is named The Burning Spider and it is another great collection of enjoyable and variegated electro-swing tracks together with more conventional dance-pop tracks.
OKOVI by Zola Jesus
Nika Roza Danilova, better known with her stage name of Zola Jesus, represents one of those artists who, although gifted of a fantastic voice that could have guaranteed her a brilliant career in pop or rock, decided instead to devote herself to the world of experimentation and avant-garde, which is definitely more challenging from an artistic point of view view but at the end of the day gave her a fame which is definitely minor than what she would have achieved – presumably – with mainstream music. The association with the case of Bjork is almost immediate. But if the Icelanding singer has shifted with the years towards an increasingly extreme, conceptual and essentially less immediate style of music, with Zola Jesus – fortunately I would say – we’re apparently going through a different process. Her beautiful latest album, in fact, has the capacity to hit us directly to the heart for passion and immediacy, in a way that’s quite unique in her discography. Experimentation, in this case, really seems devoted for transmitting the profound message that the artist wants to convey, rather than to represent a mere stylistic tool or a way to elevate – artificially – the artistic quality of her offer.
Okovi, which is Zola Jesus’ fifth album, arrives three years after her previous LP and represents the result of an experience of isolation and retreat into her hometown in Wisconsin.
SAVAGE SINUSOID by Igorrr
I was expecting this album for ages. And when it arrived, it delivered. Igorrr is a unique project, led by one of those musical innovators who appear once every generation. And the last album produced by Gautier Serre and his supporting musicians, Savage Sinusoid, is simply a masterpiece of experimentation and electronic madness.
There is no way to properly capture Igorrr’s sound and style by just words, the best you can do – if you’re not familiar with the production from these crazy Frenchmen – is to visit their bandcamp page and start exploring their rich discography. If this is not your first encounter with the band, you already know what to expect with Savage Sinusoid.
There is however some evolution with the previous works, in particular for what concern the level of experimentation they do with the basic elements of the songs. In the early works of their discography you could see that the starting point of the song (whether it was an harpsichord sonata by Scarlatti or a popular Balkan dance) was just the beginning of an exploratory journey that could eventually lead to something really different. In their last album, the amount of experimentation seems a little bit reduced and the original baselines are more present throughout each of the songs, giving even more diversity to the different tracks of the album.
From a technical point of view the album is “sample free”, meaning that everything you listen in the album has been played or generated for the purpose of the disc. You really need to see the “making of” videos on YouTube to understand how Igorrr play and record their songs. Alternatively, the official video for the song Cheval gives an hint on their unique style.
In summary… this is not music for everyone: it requires mental opening, curiosity and sense of wonder to go beyond the chaos. Listened with the right spirit, Savage Sinusoid can certainly provide the strongest emotions of all the records mentioned in this ranking.
SHIKANTAZA by Chinese Man
Since the first moment I played this album on last February, I realized that this was going to be a long-term companion throughout the year. And now that we turned into 2018, it’s no surprise that Shikantaza, the last release by the electronic collective Chinese Man, is well within the top three positions of the Electronic Chart.
With this album, the French trip-hop-influenced rap collective has realized a woderful and perfectly balanced mix of funky, groove, hip-hop and many other fragements of musical genres and ethnic references. The are a few songs that stand out for their brilliance and creativity, but at the end it is the average level of all the tracks which leave us speechless.
Shikantaza is an album made to be listened and listened again, this is one of those albums that you can easily play in the background during your day for hours and hours and never get tired of listening to it. But sometimes you will find yourself turning up the volume and dancing alone like a fool, captured by one of the many vintage rhythms that punctuate the entire disc.
THE ASSASSINATION OF JULIUS CAESAR by Ulver
It’s not easy to categorize the music from Ulver, the Norwegian experimental musical collective that is nowadays approaching 25 years of activity. If their early works explored the realms of black and folk metal, with the passing of time they have initiated an incredible and ambitious exploration of other musical genres, including ambient, electronica, and neoclassical. In 2017, with their last work named The Assassination of Julius Caesar, the band is experimenting with synthpop and EDM. The result is brilliant, as if the four Norwegians were long-term and celebrated artists of this genre and not the neophytes of this type of music as they are in reality.
The album manages to combine an incredible fluidity of sounds with a unique and truly elegant musical elegance, something that’s really challenging and not easy to achieve with electronic music.
Maybe the best way to indicate how brilliant and fantastic is this album could be to check the positive reviews that The Assassination of Julius Caesar received within the metal world. It is really unfrequent to have a band that abandons its starting musical genre in such a radical way, but without leaving any resentment and disgust in a community that is so rigid and sometimes intransigent like that of heavy metal – which I also belong to, in some way.