Sunday, February 13, 2022

Best Of 2021: Electronic

From playful abstraction to sleek sound baths, and from abrasive to soothing, the world of electronic music is filled with limitless variety. Here were a few releases that rose to the top in 2021, starting with those I already covered and then moving on to new reviews. I should point out that four records in my Top 25 would fit nicely here, namely albums by Jane Weaver, Elsa Hewitt, Wavefield Ensemble, and Ben Seretan. Make sure you don't miss those either! Listen to tracks from nearly everything here in this playlist or below.

Celebrating 2021: New Year, New Music 
Amanda Berlind - Green Cone
Foudre! - Future Sabbath

Record Roundup: Novelty Is Not Enough
Various Artists - A New Age For New Age Vol. 3

Record Roundup: Americana The Beautiful
Corntuth - The Desert Is Paper Thin

The Best Of 2021 (So Far)
Mndsgn - Rare Pleasure

Record Roundup: Plugged In
Matt Evans - Touchless
Luce Celestiale - Discepolato Nella Nuova Era

Phong Tran: High Tech, High Emotion
Phong Tran - The Computer Room

Adam Cuthbert - Transits Modular synths, field recordings, and a trumpet like liquid gold make up most of these sublime soundscapes by the founder of the Slashsound label, now based in Detroit. Every track is a highlight, but Yin, which features the questing violin of Kelly Rhode, is sheer heaven. Perhaps being in a strange new city led to the reflective yet powerful concision of these pieces, as if Cuthbert had to be most fully himself so he wouldn't get lost in an unfamiliar environment. But it's not for me to psychoanalyze what makes this album so fantastic - I just know that it is. Part of a banner year for the label, too, alongside terrific releases from Phong Tran (see above), Daniel Rhode (see below), and Miki Sawada & Brendan Randall-Myers (see here). More to come in 2022 - keep an eye and ear out. 

Daniel Rhode - Electrical Interaction Systems With three works of generative electronic music, this latest from Rhode finds a series of happy intersections between Terry Riley, Brian Eno, and Cluster. The title piece is four movements of immersive minimalism - think Baba O'Riley if the rest of The Who never started playing - while Gen1 is an atmospheric conversation between an irregular heartbeat and a witty, squirrelly synth that gains excitement as it goes on. The album closes with the wistfully titled What If We Had More Time, which matches that mood with gently pulsating clouds of electronic sounds that traverse a slow-motion melody for you to drift along with. 

Dylan Henner - Amtracks This four-track EP takes a "memory journey" across Pennsylvania, propelled by Henner's beautifully balanced blend of percussion, electronics, and field recordings. Whether despite or because of his UK origins, Henner seems to have sincere appreciation for the natural beauty of the land he saw from his train windows, lending his music an aura of hope and optimism. It's a lovely trip.

Ibukun Sunday - The Last Wave Like the Henner album above, this is part of Phantom Limb's Spirituals series, but the emotional impact couldn't be more different. Hailing from Lagos, Sunday takes a dark view of the changes he sees around him in Nigeria. Titles like Burn It All Down and Last Earth give the general idea yet the austere drones, sometimes incorporating field recordings and viola, are also languidly seductive, like slipping under black water and just drifting. Don't worry, however, you'll come up for air - at least long enough to hit "play" again.

Arushi Jain - Under The Lilac Sky This divine interweaving of modular synthesis and Indian classical music, tied together by Jain's flowing vocals, sounds as if it has always existed. Richer Than Blood, the opening track, serves as the perfect overture to her project, with her voice soaring over spacious clouds of sound, vibrating woodpecker-like sounds tickling the back of your neck. Look How Far We Have Come, one of the longer tracks, also shows Jain's abilities to through-compose, taking us through moods, modes, and textures in a musical narrative that will keep you riveted. Trust me, you will not want to press pause throughout this marvelous debut.

L'Rain - Fatigue I admit to being a little put off by L'Rain when I saw her open for Crumb back in 2018, partly because she asked us all to sit on the floor and partly because what followed did not seem to justify that imperiousness. She was the opening act, after all! But the buzz over this, her second album, was too intriguing to ignore and I am so glad I bent an ear, if not a knee, to listen. The opener, Fly, Die, is a dazzling rush through phantasmagoric electronics, air horn, spoken word (the powerful Quentin Brock), and chopped up beats - all in exactly two minutes. Jangled nerves are then soothed by Find It, a mantric piece of near-pop that could almost come from an Alice Coltrane cassette - until it abruptly changes to a rhythmless but no less hypnotic exploration of synth clouds, horns, and wordless vocals. A third section is a bit of haunted-house gospel, Travis Haynes reaching for the sky on vocals and organ. With all the sheerly protean talent on display on this occasionally overwhelming album, the end result is the opposite of fatigue and instead, pure energy. I'm expecting a symphony, or maybe an opera, next time - and I will happily sit on the floor to hear it.

Christine Ott - Time To Die If you're like me, you might have heard the title to this spoken in the voice of Roy Batty, the murderous yet noble cyborg played by Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner, even before knowing there was a direct connection. The album also has a dark, rainswept, cinematic sweep, combining electronic sounds of various vintages (including the ondes martenot, a cousin to the theremin) with piano, harp, and percussion. Voices appear on some tracks, including a recitation of Batty's "I've seen things..." speech by Casey Brown on the throbbing, dramatic title track. By beginning at the end of Blade Runner, the album could be seen as an exploration of an alien afterlife, but its attachment to languorous beauty is all too human - and gloriously so. Moreover, there's is no need to be a sci-fi fan to fall for this album - my wife is living proof of that! Also highly recommended is Inner Fires by Snowdrops, Ott's more collaborative effort with multi-instrumentalist Mathiu Gabry, who also plays on Time To Die. Both albums were recorded over several years before final mixing in 2020 and release in 2021 - catch up with them before they catch up with themselves.

Alex Rainer - Harbor When I last reviewed Rainer, I noted that he was an "exceptionally fine folk singer/songwriter," and that Time Changes, his 2020 album, was "loveliness itself." That's all still true, but there's an entirely different side presented here, on this collection of "ambience and soundscapes." Each brief track is a snapshot, catching a mood rather than an image, skillfully interweaving electronics, percussion, and field recordings. There's a sense throughout that Rainer is an observer of the world around him and that to listen is an act of witness. 

Various Artists - Music From SEAMUS 30 These collections from the Society of Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States are always worth a listen, but this one is especially scintillating. Whether the  comic-book inspired bombast of Christopher Biggs' Monstress (2019), with Keith Kirschoff's virtuosic work on piano and Seaboard Rise MIDI-controller, Joo Won Park's cheeky Func Step Mode (2019) for no-input mixer and drum machine, or Heather Stebbins' unsettling Things That Follow (2018), commissioned and played by percussionist Adam Vidiksis, there's a kaleidoscopic selection of approaches, methods, and emotional impacts here, mapping out a broad range of territories for electroacoustic music. There's no better guide to a fascinating landscape.

For similar noises, check into this archive playlist with much more where these came from and follow the 2022 playlist to see what this year brings!

You may also enjoy: 
Best Of 2020: Electronic
Best of 2019: Electronic
Best of 2018: Electronic
Best of 2017: Electronic
Best of 2016: Electronic

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