Many of electronic music’s “ones to watch” firmly established themselves this year. Aybee and Hiele reclaimed techno’s futurist mantle with their new full-lengths. And Stefan Wust a.k.a. SW. released a double-pack cementing the quirky, micro-tribal sound championed by his Acido and Sued label mates.
But 2016 also saw the old guard wow us with a couple of whoppers. The Orb’s “COW / Chill Out, World!” signaled a welcome return to the group’s Ultraworld ambient past, and Juan Atkins and Mortiz von Oswald’s Borderland experiment hit the mark with “Transport.”
Let’s look at the year in electronic music by artist.
It’s always a good year when Richard D. James drops something new and the “Cheetah” single mostly delivered. The centerpiece of the extended player, CIRKLON3 [Kolkhoznaya mix], is a slow groover with enough Aphex melody and charm to prove there’s life after “Syro.”
Juan Atkins & Moritz von Oswald
The Detroit techno legend and Basic Channel boss are completely in the zone on their second outing, “Transport.” Tracks like “Zeolites” reveal the right blend of Atkins’ galactic funk and von Oswald’s steady pacing. This is a headphones record, clean and crisp, with layers of sound proportioned to Schichttorte perfection.
Don’t miss Aybee’s new album, “The Odyssey.” This late-breaking release has all of Armon Bazile’s calling cards: broken beats, deep bass, and strings that stretch the space-time continuum. A track like “Ark” shows why the Deepblak label boss and U.S. expatriate (currently living in Berlin) has reached maximum hype. And his mid-year single The Heart of the Sun set the controls just right, if you ask me.
Masayoshi Fujita & Jan Jelinek
Jan Jelinek, a.k.a. Farben, has participated in some dynamite pairings of late. Certainly, the deep minimalist’s mind-bending 2014 collaboration with James Din A4 was unforgettable. But Jelinek’s abstract studio jams with Japanese vibraphonist Masayoshi Fujita are also not to be missed. “Schaum,” the pair’s sophomore effort, once again pushes the limits of digital subtlety and jaw-dropping beauty.
Genius Of Time
Sweden’s Genius Of Time has built a reputation on making old-school house sparkle anew. The duo’s signature restless rhythms anchor its 2016 statement, “Kepler 186f.” But a lush, analog string melody transforms the devastating drum workout into a space-age love song for the new millennium.
Roman Hiele’s leftfield electronica began turning heads (and twitching noses) with “Essential Oils,” the artist’s second album for the Ekster label. The patchouli-infused record jacket added to the charm, but the Belgian’s signature blend of jazzy, meandering melodies and acid house stitching heralded a new vanguard of innovator. 2016’s “Ritmische Bezinning” found the artist fine-tuning his craft and showcasing some sharper edges.
Ramzi broke free of the cassette and MP3 underground this year, finally bringing her playful, organic electronica to wax via Total Stasis. And “Phobiza Dia: Vol. 1” is as close to perfect as Phoebé Guillemot’s work has ever sounded. It’s a brief but bold blast of shimmering synths, hypnotic jungle drums, and rainforest chatter. The voice of an ancient god punctuates the proceedings, enhancing the music’s ethereal nature.
If you haven’t caught up with John Roberts, now is the time. His third full-length, “Plum,” out now on his multi-media imprint Brunette Editions, finds the artist less loopy and more exploratory than ever. It’s a stylistic mix of chunky, chopped beats and bright synthesizers. To these ears it sounds a lot like YMO, actually, and in a good way (obviously). Eminently tuneful, “Plum,” is pure jam!
Jan St. Werner
Jan St. Werner, a.k.a. Lithops, is as prolific as they come, either as a solo artist or as one half of Mouse On Mars. His recordings are plentiful but his sound is rare. It’s a delightful abstraction: squiggles of melodic sound, rhythmic subtlety, and melting atmosphere. The challenge his music presents has a funny way of drawing you in, and 2016’s “Felder” turns out to be a keeper. It’s simply one of his best works.
House music’s breakout artist of the year was undoubtedly Urulu, a.k.a. Taylor Freels. Freels notched three more singles under his belt, propelling his space-disco sound to the top of DJ playlists worldwide. Urulu likes his congas and they feature heavily on “Greetings From Namek,” his single for Australia’s Voyage Recordings. “Night Tube” was the instant hit, with its infectious, hard-hitting kick drum and vocal sample. But “Orion” brought the magic, showcasing a masterful balance of deep bass and late-night vibes. His single “Tochigi Descent” on South Street kept the party going, and “Air Pacific” on Cascine is on deck.
Thought chillwave was dead? Guess again. Vinyl Williams breathes new life into dream-pop’s electronic brand. “Brunei” is his third album and it’s his most polished effort yet, showcasing velvety moods and airy vocals. As Riddles of the Sphinx reveals, the rhythms can also be tightly wound, like an old Moonshake or Laika record. Like all good chillwave you’ll find the contact high you get on first listen infectious.