Sunday, January 07, 2018

Best Of 2017: Electronic

My Top 25 was nearly one-fifth electronic, including great music by Goldfrapp, Noveller, Elsa Hewitt and Novelty Daughter. Just taking those four records into account, you can get an idea of the sheer variety of sonic experiences to be had in this category. I covered a few other albums in a recent roundup, which were also among the year's best. Those are listed below along with more plugged-in excitements from 2017.

Record Roundup: Eclectic Electronics
Summer Like The Season - Thin Today
Jonti - Tokorats
Suzi Analogue - Zonez V.3: The World Unwinds But The Sound Holds Me Tight

Brian Eno - Reflection This dropped on the first day of 2017 and it was a calming start to the year - which we needed, god knows - and something I returned to when I wanted to sink into an undemanding bed of sound, although I can't guarantee I was always all there for the full 65 minutes. Eno has always had a self-effacing side and his generative music, where he sets the balls in motion (so to speak) and lets them roll where they will, is a natural extension of that quality. Here it results in meditative ripples that are very beautiful and tonally similar to various vintage keyboards. While it reminds me of Ambient 4: On Land, Eno's classic album from 1982, it doesn't quite rise to that level of greatness, which makes me admire his abilities as editor and architect of sound even more, roles that he somewhat abdicates on Reflection. But if anyone has earned the right to switch on a laptop and walk offstage, it's Eno.

Brian Eno & Tom Rogerson - Finding Shore This collaboration represents the other pole of Eno’s methods: treatments. This is where he processes sound, either as it’s being made, after the fact, or both, as is the case here. So, Rogerson recorded short, sparkling pieces on a piano fitted with The Piano Bar, which converts the sounds to MIDI signals, which Eno then transformed. The final product retains varying percentages of the original piano, as Eno applies different techniques, ranging from spacey to serrated. I think Rogerson’s style is a bit too dependent on Eno’s handiwork, which does most of the work of keeping things interesting, But Finding Shore is a great listen, often bright and pretty with just enough edge. 

Brian Eno & Kevin Shields - Only Once Away My Son Eno was busy last year! On this entry in the Adult Swim Singles collection for 2017, he works with Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine to create nine dreamy minutes of enhanced guitar-scapes that leave me breathless for more. Album?

Visible Cloaks - Reassemblage While they occasionally use chance operations, for their second album the Portland duo of Spencer Doran and Ryan Carlile have strengthened their own editing and architecture skills to arrive at 11 (or 15, if you include bonus tracks) tightly constructed short pieces that are instantly satisfying without ever fully giving up their mystery. They have also developed their sonics further and there is not one sound on Reassemblage that isn't addictively lush and colorful. In fact, the first 30 seconds of Screen may just be the most sheerly beautiful thing in this whole category. They use vocals on a few tracks, most effectively on Valve when they put Japanese pop singer Miyako Koda through a digital wringer - subtly - lending a vibe that is both futuristic and quotidian, as if you're hearing a public address system in a spaceport. Will they have the TSA in the 23rd century? Not sure, but the music of Visible Cloaks is unlikely to sound dated even then. If you need more of their unique soundscapes (I know I do) there are six additional tracks to be found on the recently released Lex EP.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - The Kid On her third outing, a concept album describing "the emotional realities and spiritual epiphanies of a lifeform through its infancy, societal assimilation, and eventual self-remembrance," Smith continues to pursue her electro-pop chamber eclecticism to wonderful effect - and with a lot more finesse than that description! Some songs feel more like little keyboard improvisations while others have her combining her voice with collage-like backgrounds and still others feel tightly composed. Her voice is almost always treated, making it just another texture, but its organic quality keeps the songs down to earth. And like all good concept albums, you don't have to pay any attention to the "big idea" if you don't want to. Either way, your experience will be your own and, in the case of Smith's music, very rich and rewarding.

Juana Molina - Halo Like Björk, Molina has sometimes struggled to maintain the inspiration of her earlier albums, but Halo is the Argentinian's most connected album since Son over a decade ago. One thing she has done in that time is work on her stage show, incorporating more musicians into her performances, some of whom are collaborators here, adding some spontaneity to her hypnotic, Möbius strip-like songs. A perfect example is Cosoco, which is full of repeating phrases on bass and drums with her voice(s) soaring alongside. Electric guitars cut in, adding a texture you didn't even notice was lacking, but then you can't get enough. Welcome back, Juana!

Moebius - Musik für Metropolis As a member of both Cluster and Harmonia, Dieter Moebius was a key shaper of Krautrock and behind some of the greatest electronic music of all time. Though he died in 2015, it took until 2017 to release these four long tracks, composed to accompany a screening of Fritz Lang's classic film, Metropolis. While I think Lang would appreciate the dark, unnerving nature of Moebius's conception, and it is fun to imagine the various indelible scenes with his test-lab textures as opposed to the usual herky-jerky 1920's music, the album exists perfectly outside of the film. This is a fitting capstone to a legendary career and if you need a refresher, Bureau B has reissued several of his solo albums, all of which are worth investigating.

Kara-Lis Coverdale - Grafts A church organist in Canada, where she also has collaborated with Tim Hecker, Coverdale is really coming into her own as a creator of special sonic landscapes. Grafts consists of one 22-minute piece that combines acoustic and electronic keyboards in shifting patterns that refer to both ambient and minimalist traditions. While there may be less textural variety than on her previous album, Aftertouches, there seems to be more character on Grafts. You can drift off if you want, but I find it quite riveting and eagerly await more from her.

Lost Souls Of Saturn Vs. Mashrou' Leila - Bint Al Khandaq This new project features DJs Seth Troxler and Phil Moffa conspiring to remix a track by Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila. Listen to the original and then hear it transformed into a haunting, pitch-black meditation. I'm not sure where the Lost Souls will go next, but it should be interesting - and powerful.

Floating Points - Reflections-Mojave Desert While there’s as much organic instrumentation (guitars, bass, and drums), as electronic on this second album by Sam Shepherd, the overall effect and attitude locates it firmly in this genre. There are some ambient textures here, along with a bit of Krautrock throb and some Jonathan Wilson-style expansiveness, making for a slow-burn intensity that is consistently involving. Pink Floyd circa Meddle also came to mind, especially the famous Pompeii concert - and that was even before I learned the album was also recorded outside, in this case among the rocks near Joshua Tree! You can choose to listen to the individual tracks or the 25-minute “Continuous Mix,” which combines them all seamlessly, but playing all of that at once can feel somewhat redundant. Shepherd remains an exciting talent, however, and I am sure there is more to come from him. 

Scott Gilmore - Subtle Vertigo Gilmore has a full arsenal of goofy retro synths and drum machines, which he uses to cobble together charming ditties that will not only take your cares away, but make you forget you had them in in the first place. This short album would make a perfect double-feature with Morgan Delt’s last album of sunstruck California psych. Relax, float downstream, you know the drill. 

Drinker - Happy Accident When a beloved band breaks up, as Isadora did about a year ago, the only consolation is the promise of new music from one or more of the players. That’s what we have here, as Drinker is the project of Aaron Mendelsohn, Isadora's main man, and Ariel Loh, known for his work with Yoke Lore, who have been getting some buzz this year. Thanks to both Mendelsohn’s sure songwriting and his beautiful high tenor, Drinker is as infused with his wistful and sincere melodicism as his former band. The context, spare electro-pop, couldn’t be more different, but he and Loh develop settings that serve the songs very well. The haunting Which Way Is South?, which should be on the radar of all Hollywood music supervisors, is my favorite track, but my only real complaint is that four songs is not enough! How about putting out that unreleased Isadora album while we await more Drinker?

The fade out of Breton, London’s brilliant electro-dance-pop-post-punk overlords, after their second album, was at least as traumatic as Isadora’s demise. But for those keeping a careful eye, 2017 had more signs of life than any year since they fragmented. Lead singer Roman Rappak was heard in Live Alone by Yuksek, which was introduced with a very cool outer space video and found him in great voice. Not only did Rappak elevate Yuksek’s somewhat rote electronica far above its station, just hearing his voice on a new track was like a homecoming. We also heard from Daniel Alexander, who played bass and other instruments in Breton and released the Unfree EP late in 2017, cementing his emergence as a melancholy electro-acoustic balladeer. Fans of James Blake and King Krule shouldn't miss it, but I think he's better than both of them thanks to his intimate and immediate lyricism and lack of self-consciousness. Who knows what we will see from the ex-Bretons in 2018?

Listen to tracks from all of the above in the playlist below and find even more electronic sounds in 2017 Archive (Electronic). To keep an eye on what's to come in the next 12 months, follow Of Note In 2018: Electronic

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