Beat Generation

Electronic music: the year in review

Dec 21, 2005 at 4:00 am
While hip-hop continued to get mo' live in '05, and indie rock further honed post-punk/emo's affectations into something more genuinely affecting, the arch-paradigms from the last twelve months of electronic composition seemed more concerned with looking in than locking in. For the most part, top producers haven't seemed as worried about innovation as connotation. It's been a year of cobbling together old genres rather than molding new ones, and there's a definite trend toward composing music better suited for close listeners than mass lifestylers. The question of whether dynamics or dynamos triumph on the dance floor in 2006 will be a wild hair to split 365 days from now. For the time being, here's a survey of the past year's most mazy albums to mull over.

Isolée, Wearemonster (Playhouse): What is this "we" in the title of Rajko Müller's sophomore full-length under the name Isolée? Does Müller roll in the royal plural? Is he as schizophrenic as the gooey melodies of Wearemonster? Or did Müller just know we'd have a monster critical hit on our hands when he released this five-years-in-the-making disc? Whatever the reason, we're ecstatic to be inundated with Müller's cloisters of detuning inner voices. Even as songs progress with the resolute oscillations of Chicago house, they digress into orotund dovetails adhering Krautrock and Kompakt techno to flitting eight-bar excursions with pliable chord progressions.

Jamie Lidell, Multiply (Warp): Many artists have long touted electronic composition's ability to submerge their humanity — and sure enough, 100 albums that sound like whales with metallic penises performing cervical calligraphy now come out every year. Jamie Lidell's sophomore full-length stands out by how wholly it embraces the opposite end of the spectrum, sounding like a reverent, soul-crooning tribute to mid-'60s Motown and Stax Records. It's only on repeat listens that you begin to recognize the nuances of the mischievous, intricate embroidery threaded throughout Lidell's silky façade. This digitally flecked funk is about strutting elation as much as it's about Princely vamping electronics.

Ellen Allien, Thrills (Bpitch Control): Cranes like watchtowers dotted the Berlin of the '90s, and these uneven (re)building blocks contributed to the music of many German producers such as Bpitch Control label head Ellen Allien. Allien's third full-length exhibits a similar uneasy tug, swept by nervy synths atop cleft percussion. Melancholic and overdriven, existing between the Bpitch label's splenetic and kinetic strains of techno and electro, Thrills sometimes seems more concerned with headroom than main room — yet Allien's frosty austerity never overwhelms the CD's galvanic, sweat-beaded contortions.

Dominik Eulberg, Kreucht & Fleucht (Mischwald): For every musical genre there is a formative tipping point, an album that says almost more about the movement than it does about actual, well, movement. Kreucht & Fleucht, a digitally etched double-CD mix by German producer Dominik Eulberg, may well be that collection for "ketaminimal" house. Two discs loosely translated as "Crawling" and "Flying" feature artists like Alex Smoke, Trentemller, Nathan Fake, Robag Wrume, Luciano and Wighnomy Bros. The mix explores the phantasmagorical state of German underground dance — a haunted friction of clarity and clatter.

Ewan Pearson, Sci.Fi.Hi.Fi (Soma): Though increasingly rare, all the great mix CDs have that moment when physiology and melody synchronize; these mixes don't differentiate between Balearic, Italo, arpeggiated and merely stabbing because your body doesn't distinguish between the beat(s) once it's incessantly jackin'. On Sci.Fi.Hi.Fi British expat producer Ewan Pearson achieves this peak-hour concurrence, establishing an electro-funk lockstep that he draws out for over an hour without drawing it thin. International remixers including Joakim, Serge Santiago, Random Factor, Riton, Mugwump and Pearson himself establish an exquisite, percolating thrust gliding from glistening to sleazy and back.

Marc Leclair, Musique Pour 3 Femmes Enceintes (MUTEK): It's been a tough couple years for purists. The machinist proponents of "IDM" and "clicks + cuts" no longer hold the cachet they once did; how can they when there are such sassy new idioms as "heroin house" and "micro-goth" to sway people's attention toward the dancefloor? But every once in awhile a CD comes along to show that the ghost in the machine is still being exercised, not exorcised. With these crumpled textures Marc Leclair (a.k.a. Akufen) edged out Monolake's Polygon Cities as the year's finest example of transmogrifying tonality, electrostatic topography and halo-pocked ultrasounds. This is a clear sign there is still a viable vocation in spatial relation.

Richie Hawtin, DE9:Transitions (Novamute): Berlin-based and Canadian-bred techno producer Richie Hawtin doesn't think about his track selections as only a collection of X but also of Why. Why be constricted to a compact disc's 74-minutes and stereo separation? While tracking DE9:Transitions, Hawtin asked that very question, and using Ableton Live software, he renders an immersive affair that at times blasts out up to six simultaneous tracks. The result is never knotty, especially on the 96-minute surround-sound DVD, which also features a short film documenting Hawtin's technical accomplishment.

The Remote Viewer, Let Your Heart Draw a Line (City Center Office): Admit it, you already assume every electrocoustic arrangement is the work of some isolated geek in a hushed huddle with a keyboard. So it's nice to come across "electronic" music so unabashedly the work of geeks using a mic as confessional/conduit in their bedroom(s). This melancholic soft-focus folktronica — the work of Craig Tattersall and Andrew Johnson, founding members of blip-bliss post-rockers Hood — is a series of rich, resonant Mùm-like tones loosely sketched from piano, bass and guitar that palpitate even as they dissipate. Fragile as tundra grass, Let Your Heart Draw a Line features crackly drifts of drowsy sighs and bleary blinks that conjure a sepia-toned vulnerability.

Bloc Party, Silent Alarm Remixed (Vice):A track-for-track reinterpretation of British post-mod(ern) art-punk quartet Bloc Party's debut, Silent Alarm Remixed is the logical extension of the past couple years' traipses through both post-punk and lap-pop's rhythmic legacies. Additionally, the CD features the talents of fourteen remixers (including M83, Ladytron and Four Tet) and half of the tracks are compellingly flooded in sputtering harmonics. The other tracks temper yelping with dry kicks and heavily ridden snare skitters (the indie party cadence du jour) marking a trend of dance-punk albums that are as good for boutiques as booty shaking.

M.I.A., Arular (XL): The unflagging hype directed towards M.I.A.'s debut boded well for the crushworthy Sri Lankan-by-way-of-London. So was the wait worth it? Well, for anyone curious enough, there was no wait: M.I.A.'s mangled dancehall hooks found themselves widely distributed on mixes such as Diplo's 2004 Piracy Funds Terrorism well before the Honda ads diluted as much as they disseminated the globalist rebel revelry. For all those relying on traditional channels, Arular's electro mélange ended up being highly useful as a multi-culti primer during a year in which baile funk, reggaetón and Baltimore Club entered the mass audience's lexicon.