As expected, consulting the LWE staff for a list of 2012’s top albums was more befuddling than clarifying. Obviously there are a lot of choices to consider, and we would be remiss if we didn’t mention a few that barely missed the top five. Shackleton’s mammoth Music For The Quiet Hour added another dizzyingly complex layer to his labyrinth, while Mix Mup and Kassem Mosse (recording as MM / KM) released a diverting set of quirky, deconstructed house, which sought to see just how broken a dance track could be. Laurel Halo’s Quarantine came across like the ambient hum of computer networks overheating in urban summer, the composer’s naked internal voice scattering fragmented thoughts on top in the purest expression of infogrid confusion. And Lone continued his exploration of rave tropes on Galaxy Garden, bringing in Machinedrum and Anneka for his most precise and undeniably pop album to date. The second half of the year promises to be just as strong, but the five that follow will undoubtedly vie for the top spots at the end of the year as well.
Actress, R.I.P [Honest Jon’s Records] (buy)
Darren Cunningham is well known for his genre studies, which have shown him reinterpreting everything from Prince to “Sleng Teng.” The results have always contained his unique, grittily intricate signature, but his broad stylistic reach has resulted in records that resemble beat tapes more than fluid journeys. R.I.P, his third full length, signals a change in his approach. At fifteen tracks, it’s an expansive and startlingly confident set, bearing something of a concept album in his declaration of Milton’s Paradise Lost as a primary influence. Cunningham’s musicianship is on full display, as delicate tracks like “Jardin” and “Glint” hint at a kind of futuristic classical music. He matches them with meticulous beat experiments: the kicks on “Raven” are so cushioned you could practically dive into them, while the “The Lord’s Graffiti” is the most driving, cathartic piece he’s come up with yet. Simply put, it’s another essential document from one of the most inimitable producers working today.
Donato Dozzy is famed for his pulsing, minimalist approach to techno, the aptly termed “headfuck.” While legions of imitators have been trying to corner his sound, Dozzy’s output over the last few years — starting somewhere around his K LP for Further Records — has slowed and calmed into a kind of Balearic techno, more E2-E4 than Panorama Bar (where he used to hold a residency). His LP with Neel as Voices from the Lake solidifies this shift. You’d be hard-pressed to find an album that changes so subtly, that sounds so liquid, and in many ways it resembles a reductionist update of the free-flowing arrangements of Global Communication’s seminal 76:14. The album’s detractors have noted that very little happens throughout, and this is, I suppose, a fair observation. While there are a few very clear crescendos — the entry of a bassline on “S.T.” (VFTL Rework)”, for one — it has the effect of a continuous drone, a hermetic landscape unto itself. Its lack of overt changes and painstaking insistence on riffing on the same few serene ideas set it far apart from the glut of albums that simply compile tracks. Why change when stasis feels this good?
In the last year or so, several of Mark Stewart’s former Modern Love labelmates — chiefly Miles Whitaker, Andy Stott, and Gary Howell — have shifted toward a sludgy, heavily compressed and molasses-slow take on house and techno. Meanwhile, Stewart’s Claro Intelecto guise remained silent, but its reappearance this year on Delsin — in the form of his finest LP to date, Reform Club (not to mention a superb EP Second Blood) — has been entirely welcome. Its tracks bear their share of similarities to those of his associates, with Stewart slowing down and drugging out his sound. However, it’s much less muddily industrial, incorporating hints of the squashed house sound of producers like Jouem and Newworldaquarium into his own smooth, square bass and string-led arrangements. Reform Club is a noirish, darkly seductive collection, and its mood is effortlessly cultivated by an emphasis on essential elements. Beyond sounding like a fresh start for its creator, it’s proof that one can sound slickly cinematic without going over the top.
Since its inception, 100% Silk has been characterized both by CEO Amanda Brown’s outspokenness and a selection of artists who may or may not know what they’re doing. Fort Romeau (better known as Mike Norris) is an outlier, and not just because he’s a legitimate pop musician who plays keyboards for La Roux. Kingdoms, his debut record, is easily the label’s most textured effort to date, and its velvety, stardusted padding is the key to its success. Hyperstylized, buttoned-up house — reaching from old-school Chicago jacks to Berlin-style churners, with R&B samples to boot — is a pretty tired idea at this point, no? Norris makes it sound fresh again. Chalk it up to the way he caresses every miniscule sound. The true hook on “I Need U” isn’t the sampled refrain, but rather the quietly antsy rimshots lurking on the edges of the stereo field, the fluttering heart behind the title’s bold sentiment. There are a lot of young producers out there trying to make sexed-up, emotional dance music, but few engage with the sensuality of their sounds on this level.
Bass Clef, Reeling Skullways [Punch Drunk] (buy)
Like so many producers previously filed as dubstep, Bass Clef’s Ralph Cumbers has spent the last five years or so steadily inching away from the genre. But it feels wrong to even mention dubstep in terms of his fifth album, Reeling Skullways. It’s perhaps the most impressive effort of his career, harnessing his fascination with Radiophonics-style electronics in a dance floor context, which recalls both acid house and the seminal Transmat label. In spite of those reference points, Reeling Skullways is a thousand miles from a retro experiment; it’s bright and futuristic throughout, with Cumbers splitting the difference between overt dance tracks and headier, more abstract experiments. More than anything, it stands out because it sounds so thoroughly handcrafted. Cumbers’s spasmodic synths sound absolutely pushed to the brink, and he spends the record’s duration coaxing them into equally unsteady grids. The idea of “keeping the accidents in” is a well-worn cliché, and in actuality very little here sounds accidental, as tracks like the twelve-minute “A Rail Is a Road and a Road Is a River” are obviously the work of a very talented, commanding composer. But the basis for that cliché — the emphasis on making the machines sound “alive,” letting them speak for themselves — oozes out of its every pore.