Best Electronic Album Year in Review 2003
Published Jan 01, 20061. Manitoba Up In Flames (Domino)
During a year when electronic music lay in hospital suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome (or was it repetitive stress disorder?) acclaimed Canadian IDMer Dan Snaith discovered the elusive antidote humanity. In a bold move that could have easily backfired, when it came time to make Up In Flames his sophomore Manitoba release following his highly-respected breakthrough Start Breaking My Heart Snaith decided to screw the micro-folktronica and not only write a pop album, but sing on it too.
"I tried to make a record that sounded the same, but I was just getting bored and frustrated. I realised I wanted to stop thinking too much about it and just do what I wanted to do. This is what came out," Snaith says, over the from his pad in London, England, where hes going for his PhD in mathematics.
"I thought I'm not going to put this out because it's so different, people that liked the first one aren't going to be into it.' They know what they want and they don't want this. But when I finished it I realised that I did want people to hear it."
Increasingly bored by electronic music Snaith began broadening his iPod play list. As his listening preferences became band-oriented, the shape of his sound took on an ever-more organic bent even if his creative process remained rooted in loops.
"It wasn't that I wanted to make an electronic music album that doesn't sound like one. I realised I don't even like any of these other records that I'm being compared to. I kind of knew I wanted to do something different because of that."
He gathered a Volkswagen vanload of 60s-inspired pop sounds, from acoustic guitars, glockenspiels and dreamy horns to frog croaks, hand-claps and his own melodic vocals recorded in tiny snippets because he "just can't hold a tune." Then he put it in his laptop and hit puree.
"I think the crutch to electronic music at the moment is this minimal is good thing," Snaith offers. "I think its killing people's drive to do better things. Everybodys like I should only use this little keyboard sound and this one drum machine to make this track. I wanted to get away as much as possible from that so I threw every sound I possibly could on that."
But instead of a maximalist mash, Snaith's innate sense of songwriting allowed these uplifting psy-pop epics to provide exactly what electronic music's been lacking lately something we haven't heard before.
2. Four Tet Rounds (Domino)
Kieran Hebden sent a powerful intoxicant into the world when he made this record. It tumbles forth in waves of shimmering, not-quite-electronic textures, which seem to directly access the unconscious. Rounds is intricate and brave, conjuring a range of emotions for which there are no names. A daily ritual, a bedside companion, a fever dream, and the most convincing argument this year for the abandonment of genre.
3. Bonobo Dial "M" For Monkey (Ninja Tune)
For a man named after a chimpanzee, Brighton-based chill-maker Simon Green is certainly ahead of the pack. Green builds his velvety cinematic soundscapes on a solid foundation of breakbeats and a handful of lovingly chosen samples, including but not limited to flute, glockenspiel, and sitar. Dial "M" For Monkey is a thoroughly enjoyable aural experience whose emotional warmth makes other chill-out records seem frozen.
4. Basement Jaxx Kish Kash (XL)
A sumptuous feast, Kish Kash defied you to stay seated while listening to it. Distancing themselves once for all from their house days, Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe delivered wicked body blows with each passing song, whether the gypsified "Lucky Star" or the punk funky "Cish Cash." Given the duo's much-vaunted mastery of dance music's low-end theories, "Feels Like Home" was especially impressive; over a near-beatless clickscape, Meshell Ndegeocello whispered softly into our ears, bringing one of the year's best parties to a poignant end, as if mourning the fact that few of our hours are ever this enjoyable.
5. Desormais IamBrokenAndRemade (Intr_Version)
In the long tradition of boys' curiosity about a toy's insides, Mitchell Akiyama and Tony Boggs have broken open their samplers and computers and found something startling. Like a smashed snow globe, out comes a flood: bits of gentle acoustic guitar, corrupted cello drones, ecstatic rolling drums, angelic vocal tones, all in seeming random order. In attempting to conceal their destructive ways the boys put all of the shards and bits back together, and their repairs yield a brief glittering new invention too fragile to stay fixed for long.
6. Tim Hecker Radio Amor (Mille Plateaux)
This Montrealer's offers a digital mash-up of sombre guitar chords, drifting piano melodies and ghostly murmurs culled from short-wave radio broadcasts. He's cribbing more notes from the book of Christian Fennesz, nimbly riding a tightrope high above the experimental/accessible divide. Like a ship in high tide, Radio Amor heaved cautiously toward the shore, each melody hinting at the emotional ballast within. Sparkling stuff.
7. Grant Wakefield/Various The Fire This Time (Hidden Art)
Electronic musicians tend to come off as an apolitical bunch, but documentarian Grant Wakefield tapped a more radical side, soliciting the Aphex Twin, Speedy J, Orbital and other gear-head stars to soundtrack The Fire This Time, an audio-essay on the first Gulf War. Wakefield's insights on oil and American colonialism in the Middle East voice the critical spirit of Noam Chomsky, but sound far more disturbing with frenzied rhythms and digital noises pulsing through their narrative. Released just as Dubya's troops pulled into Baghdad, the timing was perfect and remains sadly relevant.
8. Goldfrapp Black Cherry (Mute)
After the near-operatic scope of Goldfrapp's debut album, the English duo's sophomore effort delivered an altogether different experience, transporting the listener to disco days of yore. Producer Will Gregory continued his liberal use of dramatic strings and swollen synth passages, but on Black Cherry, these elements were backed by supple 4/4 rhythms, making for a sultry exercise in dance pop. Singer Alison Goldfrapp played Donna Summer to Gregory's Giorgio Moroder, cooing, moaning, and groaning her way right into the modern disco pantheon.
9. Fannypack So Stylistic (Tommy Boy)
Retro-teen trio Fannypack should have been a one-hit write-off after hilariously crass summer semi-anthem "Cameltoe." Luckily, the club land svengalis behind their beats brought enough extra-old-school electro-funk for a full-length. Horny, giggly and well-schooled in slang, these bunny-loving Brooklynites came off as effortlessly real and that's probably the greatest praise you could pay them.
10. Hexstatic/Various Listen and Learn (Ninja Tune)
The second dose of the Solid Steel series has the Hexstatic duo cutting and splicing everything from Young MC to Toots and the Maytals, yet keeping the vibe between various genres closely knit. The way Shirley Bassey's voice flows ever so softly on top of Boards of Canada's "Aquarius" is simply breathtaking and one of many fantastic musical blends offered.