Music

All The Best Electronic And Experimental Records Of 2017, Ranked

Editor’s note: The point of more extensive genre lists is to help give shine to albums that wouldn’t make it into the overall best albums list. So, we’ve opted to leave the albums that appeared on the overall best list off the genre-specific lists. After all, the point of these lists is to examine the way music has changed or moved throughout the year, and our year-end framework will continue to reflect that impetus. Though it is meant to highlight the best work in this genre, hopefully, you can also make some discoveries through this list.

2017 was an exceptional year for electronic and experimental music, from artists like Arca and M.E.S.H., who continued pushing post-club music to new extremes, to artists like Honey Dijon and Octo Octa, whose albums proved there is plenty of life left on the dance floor. We’ve decided to lump electronic and experimental musics together once again this year in a single list because so much of what is happening at the forefront of electronic bleeds into the experimental realm, whether it’s Chino Amobi’s elaborate world-building or Jlin’s infinite rhythms. This list of twenty releases shows just how seamlessly those two schools of thought fit together as they represent some of the most thoughtful and challenging music to come out this year.

20. Octo Octa, Where Are We Going?
Despite its title, this release from Maya Bouldry-Morrison is far from being directionless. There’s a balance here, held in check by propulsive, uptempo beats that are juxtaposed with dreamy, contemplative synth lines and melodies. The title track, which is split into two parts that bookend the album has a hazy late night vibe. “Fleeting Moments Of Freedom” dials up the urgency, like the seizing of an opportunity, ushering in the album’s untethered break-beat house. Bouldry-Morrison’s off-the-cuff production choices really add to the urgent feeling of the record. As the tracks dial up the tempo, the dreamy qualities that introduced the record dissipate, as if the more the album progresses, the closer Bouldry-Morrison gets to answering the titular question. But, as “Fleeting” promises, she’s a woman of her word as “Adrift” offers the excellent come down to a brilliant house record.–Michael Rancic

19. Chino Amobi, PARADISO
The cover of Chino Amobi’s debut album is of Amobi’s passport to the fictional “Paradiso,” which acts a doorway into the world he’s built. Thankfully he’s granted us access too. Amobi’s world appeals to what Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg artist and intellectual Leanne Betasamosake Simpson calls “a present future beyond the imaginative and territorial bounds of colonialism.” The listener is positioned in the world via a radio station, NON Worldwide, which makes the whole experience feel immersive, like Amobi is playing tour guide. Synths blare, robotic sound effects drone and pan, sirens wail, all creating a dense tapestry and strong sense of place without so much as a word. The record features collaborations from Elysia Crampton, Rabit, Haleek Maul, and Dutch E Germ, yet is careful not to credit them in the tracklisting, so that when “Eigengrau”’s off-the-rails grime hits, it’s something that exists within the fictional space of “Paradiso.” All in all it’s a strong and cohesive follow up to the NON collective co-founder’s Airport Music For Black Folk.–M.R.

18. Four Tet, New Energy
At the beginning of the year it seemed as though Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden was perfectly happy to release individual song after song, teasing out three separate cuts that would end up on New Energy before announcing the album proper itself. This latest effort from percussionist and producer Hebden is his first full length in two years, and a return to form following the twenty-minute epics that made up 2015’s Morning / Evening. New Energy is imbued with the same deliberate and intentional attitude that Hebden took to promoting the record. There’s a definite structure to this release, with one shorter track often preceding two longer ones. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see these peaks and valleys as a kind of waveform, connecting these disparate thoughts and ideas as Hebden traces his own way through the sounds he’s developed throughout his career.–M.R.

17. M.E.S.H., Hesaitix
Like a film that keeps cutting between scenes in a club and what’s going on outside of it, M.E.S.H.’s sophomore album finds a balance between songs that make the listener want to move, and ones that move around the listener. Back in October, M.E.S.H. told me that “this release is more structured, more musical, and it feels like its integrating a lot of older ideas into a whole.” Whereas his previous record felt as though his influences were oppositional, even irreconcilable, here there’s a proper marriage between the two as nature’s natural droners cicadas get abstracted into blurred oblivion while synths and loops grow thick with moss. The club and natural world don’t so much collide as they influence and respond to one another in communion.–M.R.

16. Ex Eye, Ex Eye
Kind of metal and kind of not, Ex Eye are a difficult group to peg and all the more exciting for it. This album is a collaborative effort from herculean saxophonist Colin Stetson, percussion phenom Greg Fox, composer and Secret Chiefs 3 member Shazad Ismaily, and guitar improviser Toby Summerfield. Each dabbles in “avant” territory individually, but are also equally happy playing heavy music, as all but Summerfield joined forces last year for Stetson’s black metal reimagining of Henry Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, Sorrow. On their debut effort as a quartet, they throw genre, style and convention into their pan-dimensional whirlwind of technical prowess, summoning a deadly black jazz magic in their midst that sounds full of possibility. This self-titled effort is hopefully the first of a long and fruitful collaboration.–M.R.

15. Petra Glynt, This Trip
Even if you were familiar with Petra Glynt’s work prior to the release of her debut album this year, it’s still likely that This Trip came as a bit of a shock; she’s a percussionist with the voice of an opera singer making dense planet-focused pop music. Gone are the trappings of her lo-fi past, This Trip is a full-blown assault on the senses with its rich, kaleidoscopic rainbow networks forming the backdrop for Glynt’s savvy songcraft. Few records this year have sounded both so political, so vibrant, so full of life.–M.R.

14. Errorsmith, Superlative Fatigue
Superlative Fatigue was one of the most anticipated returns this year, as it is Errorsmith’s first album in thirteen years and first proper full length in fifteen. A lot can change in that period of time, but thankfully Errorsmith has retained his sense of play, with tracks like the stuttering “Lightspeed,” the brazen instability of “I’m Interesting, Cheerful & Sociable,” helium-filled high of “My Party,” all coaxing a smile (at least!) if not compelling you to dance. There’s a total lack of restraint to Errorsmith’s carefree productions that’s both refreshing and contagious.–M.R.

13. Yaeji, EP2
It’d be a crime to talk about electronic music in 2017 without mentioning Yaeji’s EP2. Mega single “Raingurl” builds off the album intro’s steady, heady melody and dances it into oblivion. “Drink I’m Sippin On” is appropriately woozy and “After That” continues the previous song’s bountiful blend of Korean and English lyrics with a syrupy, off-kilter coo. But it’s the EP’s final song that might provide the most insight into what Yaeji is doing here. “Passionfruit” covers came out of the woodwork this summer, but Yaeji is particularly well-suited to the song because, like Drake, she makes pop that offers a window to her inner monologue in a way that’s both illuminating and narcissistic. Her soft, almost inaudible vocal delivery forces ears to perk up and strain to hear her words — Yaeji wants you to pay attention and she’s not afraid to make you work for it.–M.R.

12. Arca, Arca
In just four years, Arca (aka Alejandro Ghersi) has gone from unknown Kanye album production credit to go-to collaborator for the likes of Björk (also listed here), Kelela and FKA Twigs. Ghersi’s solo work has taken on a direction of its own, with his most recent, self-titled album eschewing the insane laptop pyrotechnics of his previous effort Mutant in favor of an aesthetic that leans towards chamber music, while boldly touching on all of his previous work as a producer. Also, for the first time, Ghersi makes use of his voice, singing in Spanish, making this his most personal and vulnerable album to date (as if the close-up shot of Ghersi’s own face on the album sleeve didn’t already make that painfully clear). Still, his compositions swirl with a kind of chaos, but now they also ache with each unexpected movement.–M.R.

11. Sufjan Stevens/Nico Muhly/Bryce Dessner/James McAlister, Planetarium
As someone who thinks Age Of Adz was Sufjan at his best, you can imagine my delight when I first heard “Jupiter” and its dark synths, filtered vocals, drum machines, and competing string and horn sections. Like Stevens, Muhly, Dessner and McAlister’s ode to the gas giant, Planetarium is completely and unabashedly maximal in its scope, balanced out by Stevens’ deeply personal lyrics. Stevens has always had a knack for reverence, whether it’s directed at a state, person, or God, and this record is no different, with Muhly, Dessner and McAlister working to create music that’s a worthy and staggering muse.–M.R.

10. Kelly Moran, Bloodroot
Named for a type of flowering plant that’s also known for its medicinal uses, Kelly Moran’s Bloodroot is a set of eleven beguiling songs performed on prepared piano. By placing screws between certain strings, Moran is able to coax out sounds from her piano that aren’t expected, allowing her to take her melodies and listeners to new places. Notes emerge as if they’ve been trapped in a music box that sat locked away for hundreds of years and are now finally seeing the light of day thanks to Moran. Songs like “Limonium” have an eerie quality to them, the percussive *clink* of the prepared strings live inside the resonances of the unprepared ones as they sound out, which, like the plants each track is named for, hint that there’s much more going on beyond the surface. Rather, the two work together in tandem to create a greater meaning.–M.R.

9. Pharmakon, Contact
Margaret Chardiet’s work as noise queen Pharmakon has always been about physicality — from the way her concussive beats land, how her abrasive synths register, how her guttural screams stick to your bones and her album artwork’s obsession with body horror. Contact is very much rooted in this same tradition and is fixated on these sounds of direct contact, or one force hitting a next; as on “Sleep Walking Form.” But not all attempts at contact are successful. “Transmissions” so beautifully encompasses the frustrations of not being able to connect with its circular vocal line, which finds Chardiet screaming and choking back bile, having her voice echo back at her and perverting the traditional call and response vocal, suggesting a betrayal of her own body. Touch isn’t always wanted, contact isn’t always the most intimate way to express truth.–M.R.

8. Honey Dijon, The Best Of Both Worlds
It’s a bit unbelievable that this album is the first full length from Honey Dijon, who has already had such a long and storied career. Hardly in need of introductions, Dijon gets straight to the point, leading with the tender “Love Muscle.” Her encyclopedic knowledge of house music is on display throughout the record, bringing all of the disparate sounds and styles that have edged their way out under one roof. The essential “Houze,” featuring Seven Davis Jr. makes that abundantly clear, as the line “bitch that ain’t house” gets repeated, as if Dijon were tending to her immaculate garden, tossing aside all inferior incarnations of the art.–M.R.

7. Kara-Lis Coverdale, Grafts
Unlike her previous work on Aftertouches, where the mostly three to five minute long tracks didn’t necessarily have to connect, though created meaning through their juxtaposition, this twenty-eight-minute long piece takes its time and demonstrates Kara-Lis Coverdale’s skills at a completely different speed. Arriving as just a hum and looped keys, “Grafts” builds as a circular and mesmerizing cascade of sustained organ notes. Quite literally, “Grafts” is a number of different organ-based sounds grafted onto one another, but rather than feel disjointed, like the starting whirr of a machine interrupts the song’s momentum at the very beginning, these sounds blend together gorgeously and are easy to get lost in.–M.R.

6. Blanck Mass, World Eater
Forget the moody synths of SURVIVE, Fuck Buttons member Benjamin John Power’s onetime ambient project Blanck Mass show some real horror on World Eater. It begins with a deceptively playful “John Doe’s Carnival Of Error,” which feels all the more twisted once Power drops the bottom out from beneath the song and starts into the explosive “Rhesus Negative.” Balancing melodicism with absolute abrasion is something Power got lots of practice doing in Fuck Buttons, but here he really pushes the scales toward the kinds of sounds that can only scramble brains. Even considering the jazz metal of Ex Eye found elsewhere on this list, World Eater is one of the heaviest records of the year.–M.R.

5. Björk, Utopia
Whereas her previous record located Björk’s pain at the end of her marriage in a cavernous wound, which co-producers Arca and The Haxan Cloak helped realize in hollow, resonant detail, Utopia finds the vocalist and producer turning that emptiness into her own power. It’s no coincidence that the main instrument on Utopia outside of Björk’s own voice is the flute, an empty, hollow form made melodic through wind. It’s as if her wound is still open, but now she’s controlling it, combining her love for nature and the elements with her previous devastation in an inventive aesthetic choice that serves a strong thematic function while making Utopia stand out on its own in her discography. As on Medúlla, where Björk limited herself to the human voice, relying primarily on the flute and woodwinds here is in no way a limitation. As much as this record is spare, it’s also incredibly lush, especially in moments when it’s obvious that the newfound love Björk has found give her new life and strength. — M.R.

4. Moses Sumney, Aromanticism
Early on after the release of Aromanticism, Moses Sumney rejected the label of “R&B” music. “R&B” says nothing about the styles Sumney is really working with. It’s is an easy catch-all for music made by Black musicians and has been since the days of “race records.” The fact is, there really isn’t a performer quite like him. Sumney operates alone, he says as much all over Aromanticism. The opening song is a reprise that calls back to “Man On The Moon,” one of the first songs we’ve heard from Sumney back in 2014 and a portrait of a person who feels distant from the rest of the world. That reference is a sonic one as much as it is thematic. You can hear that emptiness in the open, unembellished arrangements that foreground Sumney’s voice, and you also hear it reach a climaxing tension on album highlight “Lonely World,” as he speaks into the void.–M.R.

3. Jlin, Black Origami
If there’s a word for what Jlin does, it doesn’t exist yet, or at least, it didn’t until her latest album, Black Origami. Jlin has repeatedly resisted the ‘footwork’ tag, and really there’s no better way than “black origami” to describe the precise way Jlin folds and unfolds voice and percussion with exacting precision. Especially since if the listener were to unfold and unpack it all, there’d be no clear path to how exactly Jlin made it in the first place. On this album, Jlin deploys a greater array of percussive elements, with tablas, other hand drums, all competing with chimes, gongs, and marching bands. There’s a library’s worth of sounds indexed in these songs and the effect is completely disorienting.–M.R.

2. Kelly Lee Owens, Kelly Lee Owens
It feels like cheating when an electronic musician with such a unique vision as Kelly Lee Owens can also craft memorable vocals for her own songs. But in her hands, Owens two talents work as a beguiling exercise in organic versus synthetic. Techno beats throb in her hands, while kraut and house influences betray her history as a record store clerk. But it’s one thing to boast a musical knowledge, and it’s another to turn that learning into something completely original. Owens knows when to limit her voice to simply a breath or vaguely repeated word, or even when to get a friend like Jenny Hval to help her out. Her self-titled album is an exercise in good taste, a distinctly 2017 look at music’s possibility. It’s dance music that makes you think, moody and vivid, always ready to push beautiful new heights into songs that hover in a special place between earth and heaven.–Philip Cosores

1. UMFANG, Symbolic Use Of Light
Emma Olsen’s first UMFANG album for Ninja Tune’s Technicolor imprint is like an exercise in restraint. The title track, which is the album’s longest, pulses with life but also withholds adding any other elements to the song well beyond the point where one expects a melody or some other sonic element to kick in. The beat has a full minute and a half to establish itself before Olsen introduces anything else to it. It’s creative choices like that one which really underscore the creativity and intention behind Olsen’s minimalism. But the album isn’t about being cruel or withholding, as other songs are more directly melodic, like “Where Is She,” the track that immediately follows “Symbolic Use Of Light” with its immediately satisfying hook. Instead, Olsen’s M.O. is about doing the most with the least available to her, and is the result of a careful refinement of the bare essentials of a song. It’s techno boiled down to its purest form, brought together in an intelligent dance record that never gets wrapped up in its own thoughts.–M.R.

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