Shockingly, this far into 2016, there have been very few releases in the to-the-core electronic vein that have captivated the public. New albums from popular icons like Disclosure, Brian Eno, Mark Pritchard, Massive Attack and more have gathered some praise, but there hasn’t been an In Colour, an Our Love, for this year. Even with a new Aphex Twin EP around the corner, steam is starting to be lost in terms of applause for our musical creators behind the computers and the decks.
But despite the lack of popular outcry, despite the drought of Best New Musics, Eurekas, and RA recommends, 2016 has brought about a tidal wave of underground contemporary releases from producers on the come up. As it’s more halfway through the year and summer is the best time to dance, to relax, to sleep in, and to stay up, we’ve compiled the 5 best of these overlooked gems for your drum machine and synth-hearty needs.
Toby Gale – DNA Party
RIYL: Rustie house edition, A.G. Cook, Kero Kero Bonito
There’s a whole world out there that’s built on video game sounds, anime imagery, bright colors and flashing lights. It’s the world of Rustie’s Glass Swords, the world of PC Music, the world, even, of Carly Rae Jepsen. It’s been a mainstay of public attention for a while now, and has built a massive cult following within underground (and not-so-underground) electronic music scenes.
Still, for all its accomplishments, barely any artists in that world have taken its aesthetic and mood into basic-rhythm electronics, AKA house. No album has encapsulated the center of the venn diagram between those two cultures until DNA Party. It’s brief, it’s candy-like, it’s simple in its approach, but it’s fun and well-paced in the best way possible. Despite a Boiler Room debut and a steady stream of lukewarm-to-positive reviews, DNA Party may not be about to launch its creator, Toby Gale, into adoration and glory. Still, however, it’s one of the albums from this years that’s unabashedly positive nature and consistently well-planned sounds have kept me repeating it ever since its release. Sometimes what we need is straightforward sweetness, and DNA Party is nothing if not that.
Mikael Seifu – Zelalem
RIYL: Jerusalem in my Heart, Four Tet
Mikael Seifu’s story is interesting to say the least. Born and raised in Ethiopia, his groundbreaking and undeniably unique approach to electronic music using samples from his homeland struck the ear of the D.C. indie electronic label 1432r, and together the two launched each other into the spotlight. Zelalem, his latest effort for the more titanous indie experimenters RVNG, is nothing short of a perfect introduction into what makes Seifu so tasteful and so important. The album features heavily Ethiopian folk music, but also music that is steadfastily spiritual in its core.
Seifu is unpredictable, jumping onto quick crescendos with a fury of samples and drum patterns that delightfully play back and forth from intense to subdued. The absolutely jaw-dropping centerpiece, “Save a Life (Vector of Eternity),” tugs the anticipatory energy of the early half of the album –from the spoken word on spirituality and consciousness to the shrill string harmonies decorating the background– into a pulsating beast of a track, one that appetizes from every angle and breaks through into a voice that is positively Seifu’s own: not corny, not overzealous, but prepared and excited for a creative outlet he has only begun to create.
You’re Me – Plant Cell Division
RIYL: Huerco S., Goodwill Smith, Body Trip
For those who have followed the, shall we say, underground phenomenon that is Vancouver’s 1080p, 2016 will forever be remembered as the year the label broke its own mold. No release is as emblematic of this progress as Plant Cell Division from the duo of Scott Johnson Gailey and Yu Su, the exceptional woman from Kaifeng, China whose solo release earlier this year easily could have made this list as well.
House music –the genre for which 1080p has built its entire foundation– relies on subtlety, and for You’re Me, subtlety is the name of the game, though their music moves far and away from the realms of house. Point-blank, Plant Cell Division is mostly an ambient album that dabbles in dub, its melodies and samples move breezily but thumping, under the guise of distortion and elongated time.
But now and again the album defies classification, moving back into the house realm for the stellar “Oot Re Mi” and then moving into a shockingly clear ambiance on the equally standout “Tabletalk,” where samples meld into an atmosphere not too distant from something like Replica. Recalling its name, Plant Cell Division asks questions about the sounds of science that already exist musically in our everyday lives, all while taking place inside a dreamy state between lucidity and awareness.
Not Waving – Animals
RIYL: Lakker, Container, New Order
I’m pretty sure that the artistic pseudonym of Not Waving isn’t a direct reference to the strange but tantalizing scene of “no wave” music –which was already derivative from “new wave.” Nevertheless, the presence of that subculture and its rhythms and themes are always present in the work of Alessio Natalizia, whose latest release for Diagonal is some of the best rhythmic noise and techno music to come out this year.
“Animals” relies heavily on deep and powerful beats decorated with abrasive bursts not un-similar to current label-mate Container. Yet Natalizia thrives off of a certain danceability, the notion that these songs could just as easily agitate a dancefloor as they could soundtrack a drug-induced exploration of hellish hallucinations. One particular album standout, “I Know I Know I Know,” peers from the heights of accomplishment within industrial techno, ladder-stepping up and up on its base of rhythm with a more exhilarating element from every sonic addition. Soon after, “Face Attack” pulls an almost New Order-esque frequency into its synths and snares with the rare plus of a vocal track deadpanning over its patterns. Animals does not necessarily break boundaries for its stylistic influences, but instead smoothies them together into a front-to-back brilliant record from a producer with taste, dedication, and craft.
James West – DJ Midi Mayne Busy Night Time 1997
RIYL: old rave tapes, Akufen, Aphex Twin
Really, this doesn’t happen to me often. I’m old enough to have my favorite methods of finding and listening to new music. It doesn’t often occur that an album that I completely stumble my way across strikes me as much as James West’s mouthful album of DJ Midi Mayne Busy Night Time 1997. At a time in which house is still the golden lamb of public eye when absorbing electronic music and 90s rave tapes are starting to get some appreciation for just how great they really were, James West still seems way ahead of the curve. The tape stumbles from from 808 deep house, to grainy sample-heavy techno, to total rave, to vintage-feeling new wave reminiscent of West’s early days as a vaporwave producer, though that history is nearly nonexistent throughout the tape. But at all times West’s touch of energy and contemporary presence is the congealing factor.
Nowhere is that touch more evident than the lead single, “Wet Paint.” The track might as well be a b-side cut from Windowlicker. It’s samples are so smart, it’s groove so binding, it’s attitude so enticing, it brings the ear back again and again. On the opposite end of “Wet Paint’s” elusive structure are two tracks, sonic equivalents of separated siamese twins: “Get the Fuck Out” and “GHOST IN DA HOUSE.” If a friend ever interrogates you to explain the difference between house and techno, look no further than these two different flips of the same samples (amazingly, from Eddie Murphy). If nothing else, West is brilliant at attacking different stylistic structures with the same grit.
Busy Night Time is 2016’s best cassette release for many reasons, but one that stands out is that a walkman is so obviously where this collection belongs. Even equipped with magnetic feedback and the “click click” whirring of an old tape deck, the album could easily have been an artifact from the past. But if it were, it would show the skills of taste, aggregation, and presentation that make electronic legends from that era what they are viewed as today.