The skills that an artist needs to make a great single aren’t always the same as those needed for an album of equal caliber. Ideas which on one song may be endearing can grow grating over the length of an LP, and the rich vocabulary of a track can be become repetitive if used in too many variations. An artist who excels at albums is possessed of boundless creativity and a strong desire not to repeat oneself, while at the same time obsessed by a single idea of sufficient depth to bind such a work together. Their creation is quasi-mystical, and when the creator emerges at last from the desert of their artistic exile bearing in hand such a golden record, they are often just as mystified about whence it came as we are.
10 Niteppl - Cult [Temple Music Group]
Forged in the embers of French house, cooled in a bath of techno synthesis, and hammered to an edge by classically-trained fingers, "Cult" is an unyielding record which obsesses over pure loudness and fine detail both. Cuts like "Spacewrock" and "Transmission" wield the sample-obliterating rhythms and heavy bass mindset of the Ed Banger crew, while the title track and opening salvo "Me and You" play up stadium-size melodies that sound best at sole proprietor Alton San Giovanni's pyrotechnic live show. A more ambitious debut album has seldom been released in the internet age.
9 Jon Hopkins - Immunity [Domino]
Hopkins is a gifted artist by any standard, his vision stretching miles beyond the dancefloor, and aeons past our own time. By our great fortune, in expressing these expansive visions he is not too high-minded to forget to move the crowd. But his beats are made of sublime contrasts — fuzzy, crunched-up noise that stands in for drums is backed by long and echoing choir tones; grinding, heavy, rave-mode bass tones are kept at bay by glistening piano and chime melodies. In these dualities Hopkins finds ample room to express his entire world. The frantic haste of "Open Eye Signal" and the sedate chaos of "Form By Firelight," like all the tracks on this record, are unmistakably his own. If his track lengths occasionally push the limits of plausibility, it is always a pleasure to hear his mind wander just a little bit further.
8 Vanilla - For What It's Worth [self released]
On the heels of last year's unbelievably deft Soft Focus LP, Vanilla dropped a more traditionally boom-bap record with equally surprising lack of fanfare. A consummate cratedigger, he returns to the pulsing sample-based palette and manages another high-wire act of finding 20 or more sufficiently obscure records actually worth looping up, and then begins his mad-science deconstruction and reassembly. If another producer working has better drum sounds, more perfectly-tuned compressors, and more creative sample work on a single record, I will download his record, burn it to CD, drive to Los Angeles, break into Peanut Butter Wolf's car, place it in the stereo, and leave the volume turned all the way up.
7 Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest [Warp]
Managing to sound at one menacing and deeply relaxing, this album pulls off the odd feat of inducing simultaneous paranoia and euphoria in its listener. When it begins one may be plunged into a deep hypnagogic state between sleep and wakefulness, where the passing of time is noted only by the spaces between tracks. If it's an ambient record, it certainly has an odd predeliction for a big backbeat breaks. If it isn't, there's a whole lot of odd-length loops, endless drones, and hypnotic arpeggiation to go around. Perhaps it's best understood in the emerging category of soundtrack albums for imaginary movies, because there's drama and tension to serve a dozen films here (or one Dario Argento joint).
6 Siriusmo - Enthusiast [Monkeytown]
Unlike "Mosaik," 2011's loose group of singles collected as an album, this record is assembled as a complete work and thusly delivered. The result is a finer balance between irreverent nonsense (present in spades), and genuinely affecting works of startling harmony. Nowhere is this more apparent than the title track, which oscillates between categorically goofy synth squawks for a verse and a surprisingly dense chorus made from the wandering major harmony between moving bass tones of an 808 kick and Friedrich's singular keyboard work. Other cuts feature the unusually adept MC Ramon delivering surreal rhymes, and scattered throughout the album are effortlessly groovy electro cuts that are sure to make DJs everywhere tear their headphones off in frustration as they try to mix with the world's least DJ-friendly intros.
5 Phonat - Identity Theft EP [Mofohifi / OWSLA]
Despite being initially billed as "the new Phonat album," this 6-track salvo was far from incomplete on arrival. Turning abruptly away from electro and house influences, it showcased an inspired new direction that took the best elements of dubstep, disco funk, and actual dub as points of departure for a totally untethered flight of experimentation. Packed as always with delicately filtered melodic instruments and the crispest drum sounds available in the frequency spectrum of human hearing, it's impossible to mistake it as the work of any other artist. Nonetheless, the wildly varying songs on Identity Theft were a departure both for Phonat and OWSLA proprietor Skrillex, who released the record to the bafflement of some listeners on his EDM-heavy imprint alongside MofoHifi.
4 The Phantom's Revenge - The Baseball Furies EP [Teenage Riot]
These six tracks will put holes in your speakers. They comprise a bizarre mix of french touch filter funk, Dilla-esque sample shuffling, ghetto house drum assaults, and kick drums that will turn the dancefloor into a mosh pit. No record has ever or will ever sound like so much digital dynamite, but what really makes the record shine is a gleeful irreverence with style. It's evidenced by the spliced-in samples from cult classic film "The Warriors," demonstrated in the absolute annihilation of source material by rhythmic deconstruction, and made conspicuous by track titles that scan like found-text jewels: viz. "McClane is Forced To Crawl Through Yet Another Ventilation System." :-D
3 Letherette - self titled [Ninja Tune]
Letherette are impossible to pin down. Each of these songs is a journey unto itself, manifesting dozens of influences, with countless directions and ideas only hinted at. This record is marked by impatience with outright repetition, and Letherette remedy such by knocking each groove into a new variation whenever it has spun around the record more than a few cycles. Beyond that, the tracks themselves are so markedly different from one another that describing the album is only possible by list-making: hip hop lullabies, gourgeous ambient stringscapes, club-banging house, prog-disco guitar solos, acid & electro basses; an impossible profusion of disparate ideas somehow made solvent.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a compilation if their tense and uncertain style weren’t so distinctive and indelibly marked on every track. On lengthy songs, their refusal to find a familiar groove can be disorienting; on slow numbers their hazy style of exploration is totally enveloping. Standout track “Gas Stations and Restaurants” features an original vocal that’s treated like found sound, and its continual recycling turns a simple melody into a startling, hypnotic poem. On 12 tracks, they are never out of ideas, and have made what feels like the most repeatedly listenable art record in years.
2 Shook - self titled [Epicenter]
Shook has a thing for melody, a gift for sound design, and no anxiety whatsoever about indulging all of his guilty pleasures as primary influences. Disco figures large in the background of many records this year, but no one worships in its light quite so profoundly as Shook. Only a true believer could meld the midrange funk riffing of "Wasp" with its earnest harmony and plaintive synth lead; could play a note-perfect crooner in "Love for You" and Chic-ready rhythm guitar on "Tonight"; could make a perfect dance record without venturing above 120 BPM. Equally comfortable behind the decks and on stage, he has the necessary credentials for such an undertaking.
Shook (the artist or the album, take your pick) is never preoccupied with sounding heavy, loud, or modern. To the contrary, he seems to revel in the grooviness of a lower volume, but that's not to say he is anything but energetic. His propulsive power comes from the tautness of his one-man rhythm section: slinky single-coil guitars, quick slap bass, gated moog patches, and warm drum kits heavy on the claps. But what truly sustains this record is an unparalleled melodic sensibility that permeates every track, guides every chord change, and makes his instrumental tracks into earworms the way a dozen guest singers couldn't pull off if they tried.
1Starcadian - Sunset Blood [self release]
“I make ear movies” reads the tagline on Starcadian’s bandcamp biography. The record is conceived as the soundtrack album to the ultimate 80’s sci-fi action blockbuster that never got made, an extravagant accompaniment to an equally over-the-top cinematic spectacle. It’s a compelling idea, and one that’s made great fodder for nostalgia-purveyors like Telefuture, Killian Eng, and Future City (courtesy mostly of video/illustration wizard Arkuma). But while most retro-futurist artists maintain some ironic detachment from their source of inspiration, Starcadian apparently carries no such confounding complexes. And this allows him to focus less on signifiers of authenticity like VHS haze and analog obsession, and focus on writing and recording authentically enjoyable songs.
Besides being a gifted songwriter, Starcadian is also a technically impressive and endlessly inventive producer. What better use of Yamaha brass patches has ever been made than “Sgt. Tagowski”? When has the vocoder ever sounded better than “HE^RT”? What song besides “Lovetop” could make the lyric “showered in my laptop light” sound so sexy? Capable of orchestrating the spacious ballads that are the record’s most enduring tracks as adeptly as the grinding electro of its death-defying uptempo moments, Starcadian further augments the record’s 10 songs with three additional orchestral “soundtrack” versions of some of its melodies. These pieces would not sound out of place in any Dolby 5.1-equipped theater near you, and although he is presently absorbed in his project to complete “Sunset Blood” by filming a sequence of music videos that will comprise the movie, I would not be at all shocked to find him working on an actual soundtrack album in the near future. I doubt we’ll ever hear another record quite like this, but I hope he gets to make a dozen more in as many styles.