Year in Review | Top Albums of 2016 PT 2


Year in Review

Top Albums of 2016 | #1 – 10

by Joshua P. Ferguson

For all the years that 12" singles dominated the way Dialogue Inc. consumed music, there's been a steady trend these past few toward the LP. We're not sure if it has something to do with a maturation in electronic music or if it's just us—either way, we're alright with the shift. It's led us to the 10 albums captured here, records that span cosmic house and bombastic electronic pop, synth epics and still ambiance, haunting bass and its soulful counterpart. 

If there's one thing we can say about 2016, it's been a fantastic year for music and these records (and the 10 before them) are a large part of the reason why.

Lord of the Isles In Waves — ESP Institute

If you haven't heard of the Scotsman recording serene, naturalist house and techno as Lord of the Isles, it's understandable. He's seen quite the meteoric rise these past 24 months. Stellar releases for Phonica and Permanent Vacation, a flattering RA profile and a steady string of praise for his debut LP, In Waves, have elevated Lord of the Isles to buzzworthy status. It's all relatively new for the producer who's been steadily working underground in some fashion or another (deejaying, producing and the like) for more than a decade. The time spent is clear in the maturity, diversity of range and subtle hand behind In Waves, all qualities that pushed this late-comer confidently into our 2016 top 10.

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Lawrence Yoyogi Park — Mule Musiq

From Efdemin to Roman Flugel to DJ Richard, Dial Records has become a central conduit for our preferred brand of techno. And while label head Lawrence released this particular LP on Japan's Mule Musiq, it still bears all the hallmarks we love. It's techno that's willing to stray from the dance floor, to embrace its dreamier qualities, to chill it out a bit. Lawrence does this across Yoyogi Park without ever feeling sleepy or monotonous. 

In it's immediacy, openers "Marble Star" and "Nowhere is a Place" keep the pulse up. They just leave lots of space for the producer's more delicate elements to play. Cuts like "Ava" and "Blue Mountain" adopt more ethereal qualities, swinging and chugging at turns with skittish acid flourishes and waves of synth tones. This is a record that sat side by side with Transport from techno greats Juan Atkins and Moritz Von Oswald—another top LP of 2016—and yet this one landed a couple notches high on the list. That's saying something.

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ANOHNI Hopelessness — Secretly Canadian

Antony Hegarty reinvented her musical persona this year as ANOHNI. Her debut, Hopelessness, is a powerful electronic pop record with production from Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke, two of the brightest lights in Warp's current label stable. Between the two, they create a sweeping, tumultuous and beautiful back drop for what adds up to a collection of protest songs. 

As a singer and songwriter, ANOHNI uses this album to address climate change ("4 Degrees"), government surveillance ("Watch Me"), unmanned warfare ("Drone Bomb Me") and ultimately the existential despair she feels for our eco, social and political states of affairs ("Hopelessness"). Where this subject matter could overwhelm, turning into the musical equivalent of that documentary you know you need to see but can't bring yourself to watch, ANOHNI, HudMo and OPN craft something that's the opposite: Music worth embracing as much for its message as for the sheer beauty that comes with listening to it.

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S U R V I V E  RR7349 — Relapse Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein Stranger Things Vol 1 — Lakeshore

Yes, we're sneaking an 11th album into our Top 10 list. Yes, we're doing it at the risk of contributing to the already blurry line between SURVIVE and the two members who sparked a full-blown craze for synth music with their soundtrack to the hit Netflix series Stranger Things. For us, like for so many, our love of the retro sci-fi sounds Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein brilliantly crafted for the show led us straight to SURVIVE. We gobbled up the twin 22-minute tracks that make up HD009 and the band's 2012 self-titled LP. Then we turned our appetites to the release of RR7349, rinsing it down with both volumes of the Stranger Things OST. Basically, we listened to an obsessive amount of SURVIVE's music in 2016, couldn't pick our favorite and doubled these two records up here because they were so intertwined for us this year. 

It nearly sparked a full blown feature on Synthwave (similar to last year's Vaporwave story), but decided against it. Where much of the movement feels like little more than a nostalgia cash-in, SURVIVE sounds like a through line that dips back into those classic John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream tropes and vintage gear to fashion a sound that feels much more their own. Maybe it's the experimental and ambient tendencies that bleed in from the edges. Or maybe it's that their music avoids the neon glow and Knight Rider cheese. Either way, it turned us on to a whole new realm of music to obsess over.

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Mark Pritchard Under the Sun — Warp

There's a reason that Jonathan Zawada's cosmic landscapes are such a prominent part of Mark Pritchard's Under the Sun. There's something palpable about it—It feels like a visual album. In his review for Pitchfork, Philip Sherburne describes it as a headphone journey as he wanders the city. I have yet to shake this image when I listen to the record. Under the Sun is running over with ethereal textures, weightless melodies and otherworldly tones. It also has an oddly folksy underpinning to it, from the monotone, Beach Boys-esque incantation from guest vocalist Bibio on "Give It Your Choir" to the breezy flutes on "Beautiful People" to the plucked guitar and ghostly performance of '70s psych-folk vocalist Linda Perhacs on "You Wash My Soul." 

These moments are juxtaposed with hints and highlights of Pritchard's past, the rolling breaks of "Infrared" recall his seminal contributions to jungle and UK bass while the looping vocal sample of the title track call back to his work as Harmonic 33. Considering these moments as individual pieces, it would be a struggle to imagine how they'd fit together. Listening to Under the Sun, you don't have this problem. You're in Mark Pritchard's world, and while you're there it all makes sense.

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The Range Potential — Domino

One of the few highlights of 2016 that we successfully covered in the moment, Potential from Brooklyn producer the Range signaled the start of a rich year of music. In late January we saw the lead singe, "Florida," a high concept and highly infectious footworkish piece that highlights an amateur vocalist discovered on YouTube. This turned out to be the strategy for every song on Potential. 

The Range dug deep through YouTube, past the hitmakers with views in the high six or seven figures, to find diamonds in the rough. And he truly connected with these artists, reaching out to them, giving them credit as collaborators and highlighting their talent on each track. That each guest's work is surrounded by the delicate melodies and underground rhythms that the Range so carefully references, this is what gives the record its spiritual core, guides its consistency and, importantly, draws you in with its emotional pull.

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Bon Iver 22, A Million — Jagjaguwar

Every year we have an internal struggle between curating our Year in Review to focus solely on the underground sounds readers may not have come across and including artists or albums that are doing fine in the coverage department without us chiming in. It's a decision that ebbs and flows from year to year. This year, thanks to albums like 22, A Million from eccentric Wisconsin crooner Bon Iver, we've chosen to give credit where credit is due. And we can credit a lot of hours to listening to this record. Between the static and crunch of the beats, the filtered vocal stylings and unfiltered emotion on display, we found this record wholly captivating. It makes sense. When Bon Iver is showing up alongside Kanye and James Blake, you know he's got an edge to him.

Much of this comes down to the details. Songs like "29 #Strafford APTS" and "666 ʇ" masquerades as fairly straightforward folk, but the layered vocals and echo chamber effects that rear up in the background transform the listening experience. Then there's a song like "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄," which comes out the gate with such bombast it could go toe-to-toe with Hudson Mohawke's work for ANOHNI. Every track is a head turner of an endeavor, making for a record that feels both rich and sparing. At the center, it's a man and his guitar, but it's equally a man and his studio—and it's that artistry and experimentalism of the second half of that equation that won us over, over and over again.

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Mount Bank Counter Real — Donky Pitch

Our radio show outlet, Abstract Science, had the distinct pleasure of hosting a guest set from Brighton's Mount Bank earlier this year. Writing about that show here, we described his debut record Counter Real as "a cross between The Range, Bonobo and Brian Eno," adding "If nothing else, it's a great companion listen to The Range." We were referring to Potential, a record that's just two slots up on this top 10 list. At the time, we called Mount Bank's effort a close second. Time has shifted our perspective slightly.

Reflecting on why, it comes down to the depth and nuance on Counter Real. The record is filled with moments that seem as though they're about to drop into traditional electronic music tropes. Not electro bombs or dubstep frenzy necessarily, we're just expecting a beat after all the build up. Often Mount Bank eschews these altogether, preferring to explore the spaces in between. On "Gloss Hills" the beat doesn't come until the three-minute mark and even then it's a skeletal rendition of a boom bap. "She Exists in the Metadata" feels as though its destined to become a Maceo Plex-worthy deep house workout but sidesteps that in favor of synth squelches and a pulsing swing. These twists away from the maximal give the record a meditative quality—a complexity that edged out Donky Pitch labelmate the Range and landed Mount Bank in our Top Three.

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James Blake The Colour in Anything — Polydor

Honestly, we weren't sure about The Colour in Anything after the first time through. Something about it just felt off. Subsequent listens made it crystal clear we were mixing up "off" with progress. After all, there's a lot going on on James Blake's third LP. In the intervening years after his last record, he rubbed elbows with Kanye, hunkered down in the studio with Frank Ocean, landed a track on Beyonce's latest record and buddied up to Rick Rubin. 

That's bound to have an influence on things. And yet, right from the opening moments of "Radio Silence," you get all the James Blake hallmarks. There are the delicate incantations that build to a sharp peak of dissonant electronics. There's the bass chug, boom bap and caterwauling on "Timeless." There's the emotional swooning of "I Need a Forest Fire." There's the sweeping crescendos of "Choose Me" and the spotlit man and a piano of "Modern Soul." 

In The Colour in Anything, we get everything that's always drawn us to James Blake and here it's all turned up to eleven. This is peak James Blake, no longer an outlier on the UK bass scene making oddly introspective singer-songerwriter tunes. This is James Blake coming into his own as a singular voice in any kind of music, not just electronic. It's no wonder he's being courted by pop music titans. What he's doing on his latest is simply stunning.

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Ital Tek Hollowed — Planet Mu

For so many obvious reasons, electronic music is sci-fi rendered musically. It's what we love about this music. It is the future, it is technology, it is otherworldly. No one captured this feeling or this sound better in 2016 than Ital Tek. Another Brighton man in our Top Three, Ital Tek shares the spacious moodiness of Mount Bank, but pushes his sound into much more steely territory. This music is cold, often dissonant and always a bit eerie. The music here inspired us to put his name out there as a prime candidate for soundtracking the new Bladerunner movie, because we all know that as far as sci-fi movie soundtracks go the score to the original is second to none.

"Each track on Hollowed conjures images of star cruisers gliding through the frictionless vacuum of deep space or the view from atop some futuristic megastructure, with skyscrapers stretching ever higher against the backdrop of a supersaturated sunset," we wrote reviewing the record back in April. "A track like 'Aquamarine' gets at this saturation point, balancing the record's generally dark tone with synths that cascade over the brooding beat and call to mind the twinkling of neon lights. Early on the record, 'Beyond Sight' serves as the soundtrack to an intense opening scene. Like the action that sets the central conflict of the plot in motion, a symphony of synth stuttering punctures the ebb and flow of languid atmospherics, slow burning toward a climax of buzzing bass and staccato boom bap."

Hollowed is an epic and cinematic listen; as we labeled it in our review: a vision of the future. That means it's doing precisely what we want our electronic music to do and, in Ital Tek's case, doing it really, really well.

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Stories are what inspire us. We're an outlet devoted to music, media and culture seeking out people, personas and brands worth talking about. Devoted to interesting content and the written word, we share the things that excite us and hopefully excite you, too. Let the conversation begin. 

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