Published Dec 12, 2019This year in dance and electronic music, vintage sounds met the bleeding edge. The Chemical Brothers and Jacques Greene's old-school flourishes brought new life to old touchstones, while Holly Herndon took things into the future by incorporating artificial intelligence into her compositions. Add in plenty of ambient, house and techno, and you have Exclaim!'s 10 Best Dance and Electronic Albums of 2019.
10. The Chemical Brothers
In some ways, the Chemical Brothers' bombastic beats and monolithic live shows strangely inspired EDM's icy distance over the past decade. But the duo has always been about togetherness: merging disparate sounds and people on the dance floor, and always moving forward. Their ninth studio album is no different. No Geography combines old school production (it was recorded using gear from their debut album) and samples (a famous Peter Finch speech from 1976 film Network) to wax poetic—sometimes even without words—about Brexit, borderless nations, and the state of the world. It's political, while still bringing the party.
Ambient as a genre means nothing and everything all at once. It can act as a crux and a calling card. It occasionally takes form in synth nerds, who frame banal minimalism as overarching conceptual art. On the other end, you get artists like Leif, a production-savvy sorcerer who morphs textural trickery into cinematic levels of grandeur. Loom Dream distills the joy and naïveté of life into steadily-paced, micro-level vignettes. The record revels in these microscopic moments. The album weaves six gossamer tracks of birdsong, room hall reverb and subdued house flourishes. Just when you think Leif's run out of tricks, he pulls out another, and another and another.
The details behind Agora make no sense but also make perfect sense. While Christian Fennesz never appears to be in a rush to release an album (his last LP, Bécs, came out five years prior), the Austrian producer scurried to record his seventh album in the midst of moving studios, relegating himself to his bedroom amongst limited equipment. But it's almost as if the tracks on Agora simply refused to be birthed in a conventional workspace, as these four 10-plus minute ambient soundscapes come off remarkably adventurous while satisfyingly consumable. Agora stands as Fennesz's flawless mistake — worth the wait and worth the rush.
7. Jayda G
Named after the most commonly used phrase in her Resource and Environmental Management thesis, Significant Changes finds Jayda G bridging her studies with her sounds, resulting in a nine-track celebration of our environment both on and off dancefloors. At album length, G's mix of music and message results in tunes that play for head and heart alike. "Orca's Reprise" sets whale songs against tender keys and strings, while "Missy Knows What's Up" samples a call to action from biologist Misty MacDuffee. These moments are bookended by a pair of house-leaning heaters anchored by the commanding vocals of Alexa Dash.
6. Jacques Greene
(Arts & Crafts)
Born in Montreal as Philippe Aubin-Dionne, Toronto-based knob-twiddler Jacques Greene pulled out all the stops for his second album, Dawn Chorus. With collaborators including poet laureate Cadence Weapon, cellist Oliver Coates, ambient artist Julianna Barwick, Oneohtrix Point Never collaborator Joel Ford, bass producers Machinedrum and Clams Casino, and singers Ebhoni and Rochelle Jordan, Greene blended all of those ingredients and more into a smoothly satisfying and complete whole. Awash in tape hiss and old school synths, Dawn Chorus twisted Ghost Box-esque hauntology effects with vintage drum breaks into beat-driven yet lushly atmospheric house and broken beat grooves that sound removed from time.
Teebs has always been one of the more unsung heroes of the L.A. beat scene. He never made the same waves as other members like Flying Lotus, Nosaj Thing, or Shlohmo, but instead hovered around the perimeter, quietly buzzing away. His music does that too. Anicca, his first record in five years, is undoubtedly one of the most pleasant records of 2019. Often times, these floaty, downtempo albums are just background noise, but Anicca is too engrossing to slip into the atmosphere. It holds your attention the entire way through, and constantly beckons you back into its cosy embrace with repeat listen after listen. Sometimes it's the quiet ones that have the longest lasting impact.
4. Holly Herndon
Holly Herndon's otherworldly collaborator on her 2019 record has a name and gender, but she's incorporeal. Spawn — an A.I. machine learning program — computed and composed simultaneously alongside Herndon and a slew of vocalists, musicians and producers in the studio. What came from their collaboration is the futuristic PROTO, a patchwork of throughlines mapping the intersections between human and machine. The result is a stunning, tribalistic collection of sonic experiments; it comprises arrangements that challenge our perception of what place electronic music holds in the present — and what it can be in the future — by melding tradition (especially on tracks like "Frontier" and "Evening Shades") with processed and reconstituted sounds.
3. Thom Yorke
Thom Yorke's experimental, ghostly take on dance music for emo kids is a haunting, beautiful melodic record that will stand the test of time. An impressive and cohesive follow up to 2014's Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, Yorke delivers an electronic dance album that also forces you to pay attention. Like always, Radiohead's frontman refuses to make music that can be listened to passively; each track makes you think—from the smooth sounds of "Last I Heard (...He Was Circling the Drain)" to the percussive notes and emotional vocals of "I Am A Very Rude Person." Yorke's idiosyncratic dance album is best enjoyed alone, on the dancefloor in your bedroom.
2. Flying Lotus
Born out of the idea of "an eternal flame sitting on a hill," Flamagra is undoubtedly one of 2019's hottest commodities. The sixth studio album from Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison) burns with the same intensity that we've come to expect from the legendary producer, and further cements his position as one of today's finest beatmakers. Featuring an impressive roster of collaborators, which includes Anderson .Paak, Little Dragon, Denzel Curry, David Lynch, Solange and Thundercat, FlyLo delivers a sprawling 27-track LP that sizzles with his signature jazz-funk vibes, penchant for sonic experimentation and instrumental prowess that is rooted in his longtime love of '90s West Coast hip hop. Flamagra's ambition is matched only by its creator's vision.
1. Floating Points
UK electronic composer Sam Shepherd's experiments in controlled chaos have lead to the best work of his career and one of the strongest electronic albums not just of 2019, but in the genre's history. Shepherd channels and personalizes a dizzying array of modes of electronic expression on Crush. His jazzy touch keeps the traditional repetition of techno propulsive and feeling fresh on "LesAplx" with constantly shifting textures and steadily evolving harmonies. Elsewhere, he flexes his diversity muscles confidently with pristine blends of IDM and ambient ("Environments"), tranced-out trip hop ("Bias"), baroque excursions ("Birth") and highly cinematic synth and string experiments ("Sea-Watch"), among a plethora of other spliced sonic distinguishers.
By giving himself the freedom to be more playful — flirtier, even — with his sound palette and composition style, Shepherd has brought out the best in himself, encouraging brevity, trusting his instincts, and trusting his equipment to have more agency in the artistic process. Perhaps then, Crush is the sound of a composer becoming re-enamoured with the beautiful potential of synergistically engaging with the tools of its trade. Whatever the inspiration or intent, our headphones and dancefloors are the beneficiaries.
Scott A. Gray
Check out more of Exclaim!'s Best of 2019 lists here.