Sometimes I wish this section was just called “Best releases of 2011”. Was Laurel Halo’s 6-track vinyl on Hippos in Tanks an album or a mini-album or a single? Same goes for Andy Stott’s two double packs. They have invariably turned up in both singles and albums lists, or neither. Spain’s GO mag! Even gave both Andy Stott releases the award for single of the year! And when will there be a legitimate prize for best album/single/label design?
The obvious place to start for albums is Nicolas Jaar and James Blake. The debut albums of both did exceptionally well across the board, but with very mixed feelings. Jaar was number 1 at RA, 12 at GO! Mag, 20 at Pitchfork, 92 at Boomkat, but didn’t even make the FACT top 50 list. James Blake was 14 on RA, 12 at FACT, 12 at Pitchfork, nowhere at Boomkat, but lauded as number 1 at GO! Mag. Jaar also had the dishonour of making Little White Earbuds list of most overrated releases.
It is hard to know which one is the more over-blown? Perhaps the award should go to Jaar who managed to weather the storm of criticism and finish higher up the polls. Blake in particular had a rough time, touted as the next big thing and then brought down so effortlessly when most saw through the hype of his album. Both are decent enough albums in terms of production, but really add so little to the canon of electronic music that one is best to enjoy them while the novelty lasts and move on. Blake at least has his stronger singles to fall back on.
There is a couple of questions here though. One is: When does excellent production, like in Blake and Jaar, succeed the need for new ideas, or in other words, when is style superior to substance? The second question is why are all the (apparently) best producers so young? To answer the second first, money is the obvious answers. Young producers can take more chances and can physically handle the gigs where the money is, something us old bones couldn’t manage easily. It surprises me still though, that there is no apparent (or recognised?) innovation by older producers. But maybe the sub text should be: what youth has in fever and verve, age has in measure and message. That is, when is style superior to substance? The answer is in youth. Production skills may wax with experience, but with that comes the baggage of consciousness and control. The failure of youth, and Blake and Jaar perhaps, is that they fool the ears, but leave little to build on (yet).
Without getting petty about the final ranking, the only other real stand out in the RA list in terms of inclusions was John Maus’s “We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves”. The surprise here is that it is another partially overrated album that was not even reviewed on the site. This of course opens up questions about omitted albums, especially ones with high scores: Sandwell District’s “Feed Forward” (4.5/5), Lucy’s “Wordplay for working bees” (4.5/5), Perc’s “Wicker and steel” (4/5), Rustie’s “Glass swords” (4/5), Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer’s “Re:ECM” (4.5/5) and Surgeon’s “Breaking the frame” (4/5). Incidentally, DJ Qu’s “Gymnastics” also did not even get a review despite DJ Qu delivering one of RA’s best podcasts and receiving a lot of hype in the 2010 roundup (that was even sampled for release as a track on the album "What we've concluded so far").
Looking at the omitted list and the actual list the glaring absence of techno suddenly becomes apparent, with only Morphosis’s elegant masterpiece up there. Quite a surprise in a year in which techno produced some of the most innovative and talked about releases. Tommy Four Seven’s “Primate” may not have listed or scored highly, but is just one example of where techno was this year, trying new things and trying to escape itself. The Emptyset album and Perc’s “Wicker and steel” are other examples that make the same point: experimentalism and expert sound design sign-posting a new way of doing things. One can argue that Sandwell District didn’t make it in 2011 as for many the album slipped out in December as the 2010 list was being made. Perhaps as well the infamous low print run of the vinyl and instant Collectorscum price put many off. Regardless, Sandwell District where more of a phenomenon in 2011 rather than something to be pigeon holed by a single release. The collective went from impactful album, through live shows, flurries of singles and versions, to cryptic and frightening Wire articles to metamorphosing from their own sound into multiple branches of sound: Tropic of Cancer and Silent Servant, Regis staking a claim for the past as well as the present and future with Function seemingly holding up a lot of the live part of the group. The late release of the outstanding Rrose single is another case in point.
Lucy and Stroboscopic Artefacts also seemed to be ploughing ahead into uncharted territories and keeping everyone with them. Xhin’s “Sword” may have slightly underwhelmed in the same way as Tommy Four Seven´s album, perhaps a bit too dry and intellectual, but nonetheless the continuing Monad project and Lucy’s masterpiece “Word play…” deserved some more accolades than were seen at year’s end. Surgeon’s “Breaking the frame” should also get a mention for outstanding sound design, variation, the sense of mystery within and the sheer accessibility for an experimental album. Planetary Assault System’s “Messenger” and Conforce’s “Escapism” both probably arrived too late to make the lists this year, but Luke Slater’s second album for Ostgut Ton was a quiet surprise, not least the track “Bell Blocker” which almost instantly made it into a multitude of sets and podcasts.
Another album that probably would have made more lists had it arrived at a better moment was Motion Sickness of Time Travel’s “Seeping through the veil of unconsciousness”. Like “Feed Forward” it technically dropped at the end of 2010, but the Boomkat-sponsored vinyl edition made it one of the releases of 2011. The success of Rachel Evans is part of the massive impact made by female artists all round this year in the absence of any overbearing and/or smug editorials on the subject, suggesting a genuine acceptance of equality, rather than a need to give special attention to a supposed inferior sex or score political correct points. Standouts include Amanda Brown, Laurel Halo (also ignored by RA), Juliana Barwick, Julia Holter, Margaret Dygas (who's surprising album did surprisingly well in the Wire list) and Steffi. The latter’s “Yours and mine” was like Jaar and Blake, somewhat divisive, but personally I found it one of the most necessary albums of the year. So often I was coming back to it for its solace, simplicity, the hooks and the sugary production. One of the greatest shames was that the wonderful “Sadness” was not included on the original album.
As well as female artists, 2011 was also the year in which electronic albums really seemed to finally break the stigmata from the past that they didn’t fit the album format etc. Even some of the albums that were more like a collection of tracks than a concept, like Cosmin TRG’s “Simulat”, Pinch and Shackleton, Planetary Assault Systems, Steffi again, for example, seemed to be better than the past. But it was really some of the more out-there albums like Anstam’s “Dispel Dances”, BNJM’s two albums, Zomby’s “Dedication”, Oneohtrix Point Never, Laurel Halo, Falty DL, Kuedo, Leyland Kirby and Andy Stott that really broke the mould. Suddenly it seems easier to pull off an album of dance music.
Back to ambient though, the absence of “Re:ECM” from RA is also surprising, given the quality of its craftsmanship, but perhaps in the end it was too over whelming for many listeners, or that it is harder for ambient albums to leave a lasting impression on dance music websites. Biosphere’s “N-Plants” on Touch hardly incited interest either, a similar fate to Vladislav Delay’s excellent albumon Raster Noton or the great double CD collection curated by Bvdub and Andrew Thomas.
Finally, the last word goes to politics and lack thereof in electronic music at least. With the exception of Morphosis (again) and Atari Teenage Riot’s “Is this hyperreal?” the only album that really seemed like it had something to say politically was James Ferraro’s “Far Side Virtual”.
But the politics here is one of imitation and reflection, the classic cliché of art imitating life, where the hidden message is echoed in KAE’s vocals on the Morphosis track “Too far”. Ferraro’s pastiche and guarded critique of modern technology and capitalist overload was an endearing and enduring highlight of 2011. But one reason for the lack of politics in electronic music may be that the main epicentre’s of Berlin and Amsterdam are still largely unaffected by the crisis and political unrest. We are still yet to hear the translation of the London Riots into musical form and the same can be said for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Something for 2012 perhaps? On the other hand, there was a subtle shift over the year from Industrial techno (particularly Ancient Methods who seemed big at the end of 2010, but pretty quiet by the end of 2011) to more Post Punk-infused sounds (Sandwell District to Sandwell District; even Gui Boratto at Kompakt and more). Will we move a step further back along the time line to 1977 and inject a little violence and aggression into the music? After all the “retromania” of 2011, all the house and hardcore revivals, to now see the slow improvement in the stock of drum n bass and to recall the creeping tide of Jungle’s paranoia that infiltrated rave back in the 90s, electronic music’s own ’77, and think the same might be in store. 2012, the year of anger and action?