Music

The Best Experimental And Electronic Albums Of 2016


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, despite the rap-specific list — where ranking is still next to godliness — we’ve opted to leave the albums that appeared on the overall best list off the genre-specific lists. But even for rap, some albums made the cut for their impact on the that sphere without cracking the best of list. 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.

20. The Range, Potential
Earlier this year I wrote about James Hinton, aka The Range, and his music’s place in the intersection between generations that remember life before the internet and those who don’t. The span of electronic and experimental music that is possible has increased considerably with technological advances, but Potential plays more into the communal aspect that the internet has opened up. By sampling various recordings, voices, and people to create a textured, sometimes lonely and sometimes celebratory reflection of what the future offers. Potential lives up to its name by taking the murky, skittering familiarity of his production and pairing it with strange, new characters.—Caitlin White

19. Xiu Xiu, Plays The Music Of Twin Peaks
It took something as beloved as Twin Peaks to get me into a band as esoteric as Xiu Xiu. Certainly, the band have established themselves as a presence in the experimental/electronic field, but as a new listener in this realm, I felt a bit intimidated about where exactly to dive into their oeuvre. Plays The Music Of Twin Peaks is their twelfth album, and though it was probably born out of the band’s own interest in the TV show and Lynch’s work, it became a gateway of sorts for new fans to latch onto the storied band. Given they tend toward experimentation in the greatest sense of the word, as in, each album is wildly different from the others, the through-line of familiarity within some of these melodies — “Laura Palmer’s Theme,” “Love Theme Farewell — adds a layer of accessibility that allows the listener to fully immerse themselves in Xiu Xiu’s strange, mesmerizing world.—C.W.

18. Empire Of The Sun, Between Two Vines
If you’re a fan of Empire of the Sun, it’s hard to imagine being anything by delighted by Two Vines. With their third album, Australian duo Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore delivered the same sort of thing they’ve delivered previously — euphoric, sunny songs that celebrate life — only this time with an extra infusion of euphoria and sunshine. As Steele noted when the album was released, the record was made in Hawaii and most of the songs were written with island life and all that it entails serving as muse. “I’d spend the morning surfing, then roll in and make music into the night,” Steele said.

With help from Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac along with Henry Hey and Tim Lefebvre from David Bowie’s Blackstar band, Two Vines is the perfect soundtrack for a drive down a coastal highway. Or, of course, for when you’re feeling like you’re drowning in the cold, dark heart of winter and need to escape to a sunny paradise within your mind, it can help your imagination to take you there.—Brett Michael Dykes

17. The Avalanches, Wildflower
There’s a special satisfaction when a long absent force in music returns after many years, and completely delivers on the exact same level they operated on before the hiatus. That’s exactly what The Avalanches did this year with the release of Wildflowers, a guest-heavy, near-perfect collection of old school funk, soul, hip-hop and R&B samples, all stitched together in one brilliant, wavy blanket. The Melbourne DJ collective released a single album in 2000, Since I Left You, that became the kind of cult classic that snowballs over time, gathering more and more adoration as the years without a follow-up went by. Even if you never latched on the first time around, Wildflower will suck you in with a maze of hazy, smart, soft and warm sounds that feel like timeless renderings of the best moments of every song across the years. While listening to this record I’m most struck with my own millennial description of them to a friend — like if Girl Talk didn’t suck. Either way, their gift for creation out of summary makes this record a must-listen; that Danny Brown feature doesn’t hurt, either.—C.W.

16. M83, Junk
Back in 2011, the French electronic band M83 released Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, an album that producer Anthony Gonzalez composed after moving to LA for the first time. The masterful double album was their sixth release,d but it put them on the map in a new way, introducing a whole new fanbase to the wonder of group. Sadly, they haven’t really been able to recapture the magic of that record since, and Junk is very different from the sound they were pursuing five years ago. Though it comes without the whirring, urgent dream-punk synth sound that marked Dreaming, the record still manages to convey some of the same pathos and glory. As long as you can get past the truly heinous cover art, you’ll discover gentle, winding electronic tracks that soothe the soul without stirring much up.—C.W.

15. Polica, United Crushers
This album, the third full-length release for the synthpop band from Minneapolis, might now be for everyone. It’s a highly political album, to the point of being militant, and one that screams loneliness and isolation to boot. As singer Channy Leaneagh described it upon its release, United Crushers is “heavily political and deeply personal with thick references to social injustice, self-doubt, and isolation, the rapidly increasing urban decline in gentrification, overcoming music industry machinations, and finding true and honest love in the wake of it all.” Okay then!

That said, the music Polica made here is oddly soothing to the soul, despite the heft of the message conveyed via its lyrics, thanks in large part to Leaneagh’s hypnotic voice. On “Fish In The Griddle,” she laments feeling abandoned by her friends: “I wonder about my friends / Why don’t they call / Could it be that I / Have none at all?” Loneliness and isolation rarely sounded so good.—B.M.D

14. Aphex Twin, Cheetah
I have to admit, I had listened to Aphex Twin without really connecting to it up until earlier this month, when I got the chance to see the man behind the band, Richard David James, perform live at Houston’s Day For Night festival. Though I’m still having trouble putting into words what shifted after the show, it had something to do with feeling the music, in my body, and being in a crowd of people who were all there to feel it, too. Now, when I listen to the Cheetah EP alone in my room, I can imagine dancing to them in a rainstorm in Texas. Truly, this visualization would probably make any album better. But it’s impossible to talk about electronic and experimental music in 2016 with mentioning James; his legacy continues to be a presence that hovers over the genre, both in terms of electronic music’s increased visibility in the mainstream, and his knack for reinventing ambient, techno and glitch in his own gleefully mysterious image.—C.W.

13. RJD2, Dame Fortune
Producer Ramble Jon Krohn, aka RJD2, has been a fixture in the pysch-hip-hop scene for years now, and Dame Fortune is his seventh solo studio album — which doesn’t even count collaborative albums and records done under other synonyms. He’s probably best known for composing the Mad Men theme song, and anyone who is interested in a delicate balance between the somber and the joyful, the frenetic and the molasses slow, will find Dame Fortune an enjoyable listen. It’s mostly instrumental, though a few guest vocals crop up here and there — including Phonte Coleman and Son Little — but the standouts are songs that feel narrative-driven despite the lack of lyrics. “The Sheboygan Left” remains one of my favorite songs of the year, coasting on a warped bassline that blooms into a blissed out brass chorus and wordless harmonies. I also wrote a detailed review of the record earlier this year for Brooklyn Magazine, which is available here.—C.W.

12. Explosions In The Sky, The Wilderness
Post-rock bands from Texas aren’t necessarily common, but Explosions In The Sky are certainly the most famous one. The quartet has released seven sprawling records since 2000, relying far more on symphonies, synths, and samplers to produce their webbed, wordless melodies than the succinct fuzz of rock and country that the state is better known for. True to its name, their latest record seems like the ideal soundtrack to a day spent driving through the countryside, or deep in a humid rainforest. The songs are long and colorful and lush, often repeating tropes for several minutes before splintering off into smaller, enormous moments that signal beginnings and ends. Think of this album less as a record and more as an experience or a memory — the structure of the songs easily lend themselves to this. It’s a hypnotizing, gorgeous example of how songs can be linear and cyclical in ways that vary from the traditional pop and rock songwriting structure. I recommend “Disintegration Anxiety” for a moment of peace in a universe that often feels full of those two things.—C.W.

11. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, EARS
2016 was a big year for Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, an emerging composer who just about everyone I know with an interest in the experimental/electronic world told me to check out this year. Ears is her second album for Western Vinyl, who signed her and released her studio debut Euclid in 2015. Smith grew up on Orcas Island, a remote island in a group of them off the Washington coast, and it’s impossible to hear her lucid, watery compositions without hearing the impact that landscape had on her. Smith studied at Berklee School Of Music in Boston, and was actively pursuing a career as part of an indie folk band called Ever Isles before the chance gift of a Buchla 100 Synthesizer changed the course of her entire output. Caught up in the synthesizer, Smith abandoned her indie folk songwriting and got lost in the experimentation possible within the world of the Buchla. That same sense of wonder, a star-gazing adoration, is present on every single track on Ears; it’s the work of a woman enamored with the sounds she is making, and eager to pipe that same wonder back out into the world. Rarely does a work possess this kind of self-intent joy, and the gladness comes through almost as clearly as the Buchla itself.—C.W.

10. James Blake, The Colour In Anything
Earlier this year I wrote about how The Colour In Anything is an album for the ghosted, the abandoned, those left without answers. I stand by that as the perfect explanation for a record that is so concerned with greyness, not the grey itself, but the grey that has replaced where color once lived. There is little explanation to be found on Colour, it isn’t concerned with the logical or the “how” of emotion, but the passion, vulnerability and the “why.” It’s an album full of tumult, grasping hands and confusion with technology’s role in intimacy. It damn well might be the most millennial album to ever exist. Of course, it’s also very beautiful due to Blake’s gorgeous falsetto and inexplicably insistent, intimate sense of how to get a melody under your skin, but the pain it contains makes it a very heavy listen unless you’re in the right mood. When it came out, I had just been ghosted and felt bereft, it was the ideal soundtrack. Since, I’ve mended that relationship, and this sounds like the echoes of a past I’m happy to delete. It’s important to remember, if you’re still there, that grey is never permanent.—C.W.

9. Autechre, elseq 1
This is the twelfth studio album from the British electronic music duo that is beloved by a friend of mine, so I listened mostly out of respect for his tastes. On the first listen I continued to roll my eyes — how to unravel or parse this dense, gurgling mass of what amounted to white noise spiked with indiscernible blasts of percussion? There were only five tracks, the names were weird, I was judging everything up on a surface level — it was unfamiliar, I didn’t understand, I found little to latch onto. By the fourth listen, I found myself hooked into the hypnotizing repetition of fuzz and percussion that had previously seemed unlistenable. I began to hear patterns emerging, notice slight changes in rhythm and pitch in the looped synthesizer line, and even isolate different sections of the lengthy seven minute plus songs. It wasn’t quite the same shift I experienced with Aphex Twin, but elseq 1 is certainly the album I worked the hardest to understand in 2016, and the one that felt the most rewarding when I did begin to connect to it. The fact that I still don’t fully understand is part of the appeal, and proof of how much more time I need to spend inside this genre instead of just lingering on the surface.—C.W.

8. Brian Eno, The Ship
Brian Eno has never fallen off. Full stop. Eno remains one of the foremost musical minds of our generation for forty years solid, contributing new albums that seem to challenge the confines of time and space whenever he feels moved to do so. In that same way, The Ship was an effort to play with the confines of sound and landscape; the four tracks contained here function mostly as one long journey, even if the first two tracks “The Ship” and “Fickle Sun (i)” make up over half of the record themselves. Still, considering this is the first album from Eno in eleven years, it’s a welcome, soothing addition to his already extensive discography. Eno wrote that he wanted to make an album to address the balance between “hubris and paranoia” in the human experience, using the Titantic as a guide for his record, and those two guideposts anchor the feeling of this ambience. With another record just around the corner in January, it looks like Eno will continue his exploration well into next year.—C.W.

7. Marie Davidson, Adieux Au Dancefloor
Perhaps spoken word poetry and electronic music aren’t two things you’d intiutively put together, but they actually pair extremely well on Marie Davidson’s Adieux Au Dancefloor. Davidson is half of Essaie Pas, a duo from Montreal, a hotbed for electronic music, but Dancefloor is her third solo album, and its spare, wiry rhythms and gripping poetry made it one of the most enjoyable entries in a packed year for experimental music. Though not aggressive, it challenges the listener with skittering percussion, like the beat on “Denial” that spills into submerged vocals and ominous synths. Later, the title track subsumes club sounds within a vocal sung in French, before splintering into a jittery spoken word section and more ’80s era synths. Whether she’s singing, producing, or reciting, Davidson’s fiercely personal, uncompromising view of her poetry and music makes this record a gripping listen.—C.W.

6. Jenny Hval, Blood Bitch
No one is better at challenging the status quo than Jenny Hval, who brought period blood into the spotlight because it deserves to be there. For most women, the menstrual cycle is a huge part of our lives, and yet, there is little art or even discussion about its impact on our lives. When I spoke to the Norwegian musician earlier this year, she mentioned the frankness and outspokenness of sharing the intimacy of periods between women, and how that feeling informed the vibe she wanted for this record. Blood Bitch is political, but deeply personal, and surprisingly beautiful even when it is purposefully garish about the details of human bodies and how we use them to live and love in a flawed world.—C.W.

5. Clipping, Splendor And Misery
Splendor And Misery remains one of the best experimental records of 2016, though it still hasn’t received the attention it deserves. For an in-depth deep dive into Clipping and their history, check out the lengthy profile we published on them earlier this year. Daveed Diggs is the group’s de facto frontman — he raps and writes all the lyrics that drive these songs from splintered bedroom noise toward narrative, sci-fi dreams, but it’s the production created by Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson that truly makes Splendor And Misery an unf*ckwithable album. For those who love rap and aren’t necessarily as well-versed in noise, this record is a wonderful hybrid and gateway drug into the world of blown out fuzz. The dystopian narrative doesn’t hurt, either.—C.W.

4. Nicolas Jaar, Sirens
Nicolas Jaar is one of those musicians who makes me wish I wasn’t a music critic, because I don’t think I can put how I feel about his music into words. I just want to play the glass-breaking piano section of “Killing Time” for you on loop, and let you hear the boredom, the joyful destruction, the anxiety and the burst of freedom for yourself. There are no words but it speaks to the feeling of emptiness and untapped power that exists all around me. For this album, Jaar was influenced by the Chilean politics (he is Chilean-American), and a thread of feeling that wants confrontation of corruption and desires freedom runs throughout the record with urgency. “Three Sides Of Nazareth” and “The Governor” are both percussion-led and have vocals at the center, but mostly Sirens is about sounds, and there are no words I’ve found yet to challenge or capture the way he works with them. Truly this is a record where you must listen for yourself, and see what you find in the chaos.—C.W.

3. Jessy Lanza, Oh No
The sleek, lush world of Jessy Lanza is decidedly feminine. In a space that has and continues to be dominated by men, Lanza claims her womanhood with slang, giggles, coos and an unabashed tenderness that comes through even on the iciest tracks. I spoke with her earlier this year about her journey from jazz and music composition to the experimental electronic/R&B sound she’s pursued since, and in the conversation she emphasized learning Logic, gaining access to synths and tools that aren’t often provided or easy to come by. Since then, Lanza has helped lead camps geared toward teaching teenage girls how to use these tools to make music. She’s also released two solo albums and EPs, of which Oh No is the clear frontrunner. It’s full of sharp, sweet jittery R&B jams spiked with synths and beats that carry them far beyond the realm of the dance floor and up into the atmosphere.—C.W.

2. Julianna Barwick, Will
Graceful is the word that comes to mind first when I think about Julianna Barwick. Will seems to flow more than any other album I listened to this year, it’s a gentle, swift collection of melodies and vocal harmonies that feels effortless, but clearly took countless hours to carefully construct. The greatest albums have no real comparison, and there are few people that can do what Barwick has done, or have the vision to bring these looped, beautiful medleys into the world. Listening to electronic music feels much more like looking than hearing to me, and a great album is like looking at a long horizon. Barwick’s is the longest of all — it stretches on and on into the blue. It does, and it will.—C.W.

1. Anohni, Hopelessness
There is power in recognizing your own limitations. There is power in vulnerability. There is power in voicing your anger, betrayal and trauma. On Hopelessness Anohni, formerly of Antony and the Johnsons, claimed her place in the world by interrogating the structures that limit, survey and brutalize. These songs often assume a passive stance — “Drone Bomb Me,” “Watch Me” — to mimic the shrug-and-sigh that dictates the behavior of so many of us who could do more. In some ways, Hopelessness is a rallying point for those who are concerned about drones, climate change, corruption, military violence, and all other forms of trauma that we accept into our lives on a daily basis. The fact that she created an album that speaks truth to power with such force, and remains intimate and accessible on a personal level as well (“I Don’t Love You Anymore”), is a feat. By addressing these global issues from a personal place, Anohni points toward what could help unite those who suffer — trauma as a meeting point instead of a system to displace one another — within a glistening, painful declaration of her own experience. Within Anohni’s Hopelessness, others will find the strength to voice their own.—C.W.

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