I’m starting with this post the selection of the best albums of the first half of the year 2017. First entry is dedicated to Electronic Music. As you may expect the chart is going to include many different styles ans sub-genres, reflecting the thousand faces of this musical genre. We will find below a few elegant musicians playing with delicated electronic effects alongside with artists of noise or maniacs of the experimentation. In all cases, however, the albums that have found their position in the list have something special and unique, it may be musical innovation or the perfection in songwriting. Ten albums, ten great artists or bands, ten different ways to convey passion and emotions through electronic tools.
#1) Shikantaza by Chinese Man
(Trip Hop, Funk, Dub, Hip Hop, Reggae and Jazz)
Since the first moment I played this album on last February, I realized that this was going to be a long-term companion throughout the year. Now that we have arrived at mid-year, it’s no surprise that Shikantaza, the last release by the electronic collective Chinese Man, is at the top of the Electronic Chart.
5 years after their first album Racing with the Sun, Chinese Man is back with a new opus, Shikantaza, composed between Marseille, Mumbay and their secret nest in the french countryside. Shikantaza is an invitation to let go, to capture the moment, a personal path to enlightenment. (Chinese Man Records)
With this album, the French trip-hop-influenced rap collective has realized a woderful and perfectly balanced mix of funky, groove, hip-hop and many other fragements of musical genres and ethnic references. The are a few songs that stand out for their brilliance and creativity, but at the end it is the average level of all the tracks which leave us speechless. Shikantaza is an album made to be listened and listened again, this is one of those albums that you can easily play in the background during your day for hours and hours and never get tired of listening to it. But sometimes you will find yourself turning up the volume and dancing alone like a fool, captured by one of the many vintage rhythms that punctuate the entire disc.
#2) The Assassination of Julius Caesar by Ulver
(Synth Pop, New Wave, EDM)
It’s not easy to categorize the music from Ulver, the Norwegian experimental musical collective that is nowadays approaching 25 years of activity. If their early works explored the realms of black and folk metal, with the passing of time they have initiated an incredible and ambitious exploration of other musical genres, including ambient, electronica, and neoclassical. This year, with their last work named The Assassination of Julius Caesar, the band is experimenting with synthpop and EDM. The result is brilliant, as if the four Norwegians were long-term and celebrated artists of this genre, and not the neophytes of this type of music as they are in reality.
Those familiar with this stubborn pack of wolves from Oslo will not be surprised that they also this time round are shifting shape. Never afraid of challenging or redefining current musical conventions, Ulver has now enacted what they are calling “their pop album”. You don’t have to worry about vexing radio humdrum or pastel ear candy though – Talk Talk and Music Machine are pop music as good as any in the universe of Ulver. A universe where “pop” is more a mark of distinction, denoting immediacy and possible body movement (House of Mithology)
The album manages to combine an incredible fluidity of sounds with a unique and truly elegant musical elegance, something that’s really challenging and not easy to achieve with electronic music. The quality of the LP is very high, on all aspects, and that’s basically one of the entries in this music chart which surprised me the most
#3) Savage Sinusoid by Igorrr
(Breakcore, Experimental, Baroquecore, Death Metal)
I was expecting this album for ages. And when it arrived, it delivered. Igorrr is a unique project, led by one of those musical innovators who appear once every generation. And the last album produced by Gautier Serre and his supporting musicians, Savage Sinusoid, is simply a masterpiece of experimentation and electronic madness.
On this record, electronic manipulations, accordion, saxophone, sitar, harpsichord, mandolin and strings sit comfortably alongside ruthless blastbeats, chunky riffs, death grunts and soaring operatic vocals – and as chaotic as this might sometimes seem, there is no lack of heart behind everything thundering from the speakers. (Igorrr.com)
There is no way to properly capture Igorrr’s sound and style by just words, the best you can do if you’re not familiar with the production from these crazy Frenchmen is to visit their bandcamp page and start exploring their rich discography. If this is not your first encounter with the band you already know what to expect with Savage Sinusoid. There is however some evolution with the previous works, in particular for what concern the level of experimentation they do with the basic elements of the songs. In the early works of their discography you could see that the starting point of the song (whether it was an harpsichord sonata by Scarlatti or a popular Balkan dance) was just the beginning of an exploratory journey that could eventually lead to something really different. In their last album, the amount of experimentation seems a little bit reduced and the original baselines are more present throughout each of the songs, giving even more diversity to the different tracks of the album.
From a technical point of view, the album is “sample free“, meaning that everything you listen in the album has been played or generated for the purpose of the disc. You really need to see the “making of” videos on YouTube to understand how Igorrr play and record their songs. Alternatively, the official video for the song Cheval gives an hint on their unique style.
In summary… this is not music for everyone: it requires mental opening, curiosity and sense of wonder to go beyond the chaos. I like it a lot, I’m listening to this album almost uninterruptedly since the first day I got it. And it’s not excluded that in the coming months we will find it even in higher rankings of this chart.
#4) The Burning Spider by Parov Stelar
(Electro Swing, Downtempo, Dance Pop)
Parov Stelar is the stage name for Marcus Füreder, an Austrian musician, producer and DJ which gained some popularity in the electronics industry as one of the pioneers of “electronic-swing”. In his productions he mixes with great skill disparate elements from house music, dance and even some fragments of jazz. It’s worth saying that Parov Stelar is Austria’s most successful international artist and won 7 Amadeus Austrian Music Awards. His unique sound, his specific approach to music production and the unorthodox combination of musical genres soon made him the star of an uprising scene.
In the last years he released a number of good and captivating albums, almost one every year. The album he published in 2017 is named The Burning Spider and it is another great collection of enjoyable and variegated electro-swing tracks together with more conventional dance-pop tracks.
#5) Soiree Deluxe by Tape Five
(Electro Swing, Dance)
This year we see a clear resurgence of the electro-swing and it is not by chance that we have in this chart, one after the other, two worthy representatives of this musical genre. erman collective Tape Five claim to be the co-inventors of the electro-swing and Soiree Deluxe is the 6th studio album of the project.
Beyond the bold statements from the band, it is beyond doubt that these guys have found the perfect recipe to mix together virbant electronic beats with swing jazz, bossa nova, reggae and other multiple influences. The album is a collection of refreshing tracks that are enriched with marvellous performance from very skilled musicians (mostly horn sections and singers). A special positive characteristic of the album is the high number of very good tracks that you will find inside. Very rarely I find myself liking so many tracks from a single work, and this is one of these few cases.
#6) Migration by Bonobo
(Downtempo, Chill Out, Ambient Electronic)
Migration, the sixth electronic album in the career of British DJ Simon Greenby (a.k.a. Bonobo), was the first electronic album this year to be awarded in this blog as Best Album of the Month. This is in fact a work that is immediately appreciated for its class and elegance, and its value is confirmed with time after repeated listening.
Probably today Bonobo is one of the best artists in the downtempo sub-genre, his works are emotive, passionate, intricate but delicate, with a special attention to every detail. And it’s a real pleasure to get lost within the intriguing musical harmonies that permeate the work-
All told, Migration is an impressive improvement over The North Borders (Bonobo’s previous album), and easily the most listenable record of Bonobo’s fifteen-plus year career. It’s a record with equal appeal for electronic music fans and general listeners, something you could put on anywhere. Essentially, it recasts downtempo as a genre with more potential than party music on the Bosphorus. (Pitchfork)
#7) World Eater by Blanck Mass
(Experimental, Drone Music, Noise)
Blank Mass is the electronic solo project by the English DJ and producer Benjamin John Power, who is mainly known for being one of the two founders of the experimental duo Fuck Buttons (where he plays together with Andrew Hung). World Eater is the new album released by Blank Mass, and the third of its discography (there are actually a number of other releases as EPs and soundtracks).
For those who are familiar with the earlier work by this artist, both solo and with Fuck Buttons, you know what to expect: a sonic attack with mesmeric repetitions and industrial inserts. And this record, in fact, is no exception. The album contains seven interesting tracks that move between noise and experimentation, all seasoned with a good dose of sonic violence.
A particular aspect of this album is that BJP tried to work with a limited set of electronic tools, trying to focus the development of the songs with a small number of effects. And the result is very interesting and enjoyable to listen.
“As an exercise in better understanding myself musically, I found myself using an increasingly restricted palette during the World Eater creative process. Evoking these intense emotions using minimal components really put me outside of my comfort zone and was unlike the process I am used to. Feeling exposed shone a new light on this particular snapshot. I feel enriched for doing so”. (Benjamin John Power on Bandcamp)
#8) What If by Hauschka
(Avant Garde, Prepared Piano)
At the 8th place in the chart there is another album that was really hard to classify. It’s included in the electronic category beacause of a greater assonance with the genre: actually there are electronic elements within the songs but also many other things. To define What If, the recent work by Hauschka, as a simple electronic album is therefore a limitation and it could be also misleading for some listeners.
German pianist Volker Bertelmann, who’s the man behind the stage name Huschhka, is mostly known for his compositions for prepared piano, i.e. a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects on or between the strings (in this case scraps of aluminum, ping-pong balls and other household items). On his new album, which is the eighth of his career, Hauschka plays the prepared piano in combination of other keyboards instruments such as a Yamaha’s high-tech player piano and a 1970s-vintage Roland analog synthesizer, and such a blending of new and old Technologies is used by the artist to generate singular but enjoyable pieces of modern music. The real peculiarity of this author is that he transforms the piano into a mechanical instrument, a source of sounds which are at times delicate and sometimes disturbing. The result is a combination of multiple layers of minimal and introspective music which manage to evoke different and sometimes contrasting feelings.
Likely to prove one of 2017’s most original albums, while at the same time inspiring questions about the very nature of the world we inhabit, What If redefines the very notion of piano music in a dramatic and exceptional fashion. It stands as a rebuttal to those who lazily seek to shoehorn Hauschka’s work into the so-called, uncomfortably broad ‘new classical’ category, and instead underlines his status as a unique and invaluable artist. (Bandcamp)
#9) Ti Amo by Phoenix
Ti Amo, the new album by French synth-pop masters Phoenix, is a controversial album.
One one side this is an happy journey into a dreamilized version of Italian summers, with all the elements that you may associate with that idea: love, desire, food, beaches, and disco nights. And it’s a real fun to be captured by the catchy and cheerful motives of some of the songs of the album (as the title track, which is maybe the best track of the work). On the other side, however, this romanticised version of Italy is probably a concept a bit too weak to sustain an entire disk and what really remains in many of the tracks of the album is just an over-sweet layering of synthesizers with curious Italian terms quoted here and there.
If you take the funny part of it, this is an enjoyable electronic pop album without too many pretenses of seriousness. If instead we focus on the conceptual element of the album, the result is probably below expectations.
#10) Out Of Time by Hugo Kant
(Trip Hop, Downtempo)
We conclude this mid-year chart with Out Of Time, the third work by trip-hop artist and multi-instrumentalist Hugo Kant. The album hosts a number of very good and delicate songs that may be the perfect background for reflection and meditation, and the record also succeeds in the difficult task of telling us something new about a genre that absolutely needs some innovation.
Another valuable element of this album is the use made by the author of numerous jazz and cinemaitc influences. Nothing completely original, of course, but the blend that has been developed by the artist from Marseilles is definitely interesting and he managed to stand out from the average level of the downtempo albums which I heard in recent times.