Illustration by Dana Kim
Never question the efficacy of a great album. Dance singles offer concentrated dopamine hits and lengthy mixes offer IV drips of all sorts of pleasant neurotransmitters, but 2016’s vast slate of electronic full-lengths, while sometimes more gradual in their effects, are no less life-altering. Afforded the opportunity to take up a little more space, producers made a number of complex statements, offering up electro-protest anthems, rose-tinted remembrances of childhood, and collections of club tracks as harrowing as War of the Worlds. Below are 33 albums that went beyond a single track’s impact to offer expansive discourse and complicated feelingsin a year that demanded both.
33. Baauer – Aa
Though Aa didn’t come out until March, Baauer heralded his debut studio album’s arrival back in January, when the producer debuted “Days Ones,” a collaboration with Novelist and Leikeli47, on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Leikeli47 was wearing her signature balaclava; the Brooklyn-based producer, whose real name is Harry Rodrigues, was seated casually on a couch to the side of the stage, wearing headphones and staring at a laptop. Even for someone who has lived, at various times, in Philly, Germany, London, and Connecticut, the ruse positioned Rodrigues first and foremost as a child of the internet.
And Aa cements that interpretation, leveraging bass music, grime, hip-hop, and twinkling ambience less as ends in themselves than as shifting emotional terrains in an LED-lit journey into the end of the night. The stacked lineup of guests on the albumamong them, Future, Pusha T, MIA, and South Korean rapper G-Dragonmake for some of the highest highs, but to Baauer’s credit, in his first big look since the “Harlem Shake,” the moments of wide-eyed lyricism leave as much of an impression as the drops.Emilie Friedlander
32. DJ Tiga – The Sound Vol. 1
DJ TiGa describes his craft in surprisingly functional terms. Discussing the philosophy that informed The Sound Vol. 1, his debut mixtape for J-Cush’s influential Brooklyn label Lit City Trax, the Newark-based producer put it simply: “Club music isn’t beautiful. It’s supposed to make you sweat, you’re supposed to jump, you’re supposed to be able to scream to the top of your lungs.”
Caffeine-pill flips of Rocko’s “U.O.E.N.O” and Biggie’s “Dead Wrong” (presented in filleted form here as “Take Note (Who the Man),” fulfill that mandate of dancefloor destruction. But the real triumph of The Sound Vol. 1, contrary to TiGa’s own claims, is the paradoxical beauty of the thing; he has a knack for presenting simple melodies that roil colorfully against the TV static of the drum programming. It’s often an austere sort of allure, but the kaleidoscopic sweetness underpinning songs like the Tink and Aaliyah-sampling “Your Love” is part of what makes The Sound so addictive outside of dancefloor contextsa little saccharine to accompany the sweat.Colin Joyce
31. Ana Caprix – M6 Ultra
Since I started working a 9-5 last year, my listening sessions during my daily bus commute have acquired a level of personal sanctity similar in emotional intensity to Helga’s shrine to Arnold in her closet. This is my time, and whatever I put on better fucking jam. So it’s not faint praise to say that the album I’ve played most often after wrenching myself out of bed and crumpling into a blue plastic bus seat is this under-the-radar stunner from British producer Ana Caprix. It’s hard to quantify exactly what’s going with it musically: there are elements of trance, sure, but there’s also hip-hop percussion, dreamy ambient pads, and a nasty Dido sample or two. It doesn’t matter, ultimately; just throw it on and melt away.Ezra Marcus
30. Mock the Zuma – Gauss
Mexican producer born Kevin Santana is known for making bold statements; his alias of Mock the Zuma is a parody of the notorious ninth governor of Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma II. Released on influential Mexican label and collective NAAFI, Gauss is plagued with sounds extracted from video games and internet clips and is about the realities of living and making music in Mexico. The record’s seven tracks aren’t intended to shine on the dancefloor, but rather to provoke introspection from its dark production. Santana’s hometown of Ciudad Jurez is one of the most violent cities in Mexico, and his EP is a reminder of what it’s like to create music in a city at war with drug trafficking, where the hours after curfew are passed with friends and video games. Ultimately, Gauss is a reflection of the border reality that is lived in Mexico.Valeria Anzaldo
29. Tommy Awards – Sessions II
Even if my listening has been colored by the repeated occasions I’ve imagined that this Swedish Balearic duo’s name is some sort of porn award, Sessions II is a strangely sexy recordif your idea of a perfect fuck involves lapping waves, silk sheets, and the prurient bliss of Ash Ra Tempel records. Even if all that isn’t your bag, this tantric two-trackerwhich plods along gently on puttering drums, then recedes as gentle mystical Environments recording soundalikes and lackadaisical guitars swell around itis a perfect accompaniment to any activity that involves two consenting adults and a pair of speakers. Highly recommended for those of you out there into rainforests, Steve Roach, post-coital glows.Josh Baines
28. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani – Sunergy
Since their inception in 2009, RVNG Intl.’s FRKWYS series has become a kind of fantasy football for people who read The Wire and despise actual football. Previous installments have seen Blues Control jamming with zither-maestro Laraaji, Sun Araw hanging out with reggae legends the Congos, and the formation of what is possibly the world’s greatest modular synth supergroup to date, Borden, Ferraro, Godin, Halo, and Lopatin.
This time around, the label has paired the celestial and perennially soothing Suzanne Ciani with fellow Buchla player Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith for a languorous waltz down the Pacific Coast Highway. Sunergy is an unhurried minor masterpiecea burbling and barely-there set of synth-jams that breathe themselves into the most subtle of beings. This is intricate and understandably ornate music that demandsand rewardsdeep listening.Josh Baines
27. Foodman – Ez Minzoku
Critics have largely described the sonic riddles that Takahide Higuchi issues as Foodman as if he were still in the throes of an early fascination with the caffeinated kick drum programming of footwork. But in the years since he debuted back in 2012, he’s taken real glee in frustrating those expectations, channelling the twitchy programming he learned from that genre into a barrage of harebrained samples.
His full-length return to the absurdo-futurist imprint Orange Milk, Ez Minzoku, is his most hilarious effort yetand perhaps his record least linked to footwork, or the dance floor at all for that matter. Within the space of just a few tracks, there’s jaw-dropping samples of metal riffs, referee whistles, dial-tone drops, pinched “ow”s, Japanese rapping, and treacly synth lines that sound kind of like Dntel’s cotton candy programming for the Postal Serviceand sometimes more. It’s a joyous cacophony of sounds that shouldn’t be able to coexist, let alone produce moments as sublime as the new age-y bliss of “Ure Pill.” Mostly, though, it’s the sound of cartoon neurons juking at the same speed as his bass drums once did.Colin Joyce
26. Umfang – Riffs
Emma Burgess-Olson’s productions as Umfang tend to be even more multifarious than her DJ sets. On a split earlier this year for the Danish experimental label Phinery, she demonstrated a taste for the totally fucked, tossing up acidic screwballs that lifted her sound away from the dancefloor entirely. Her August release for 1080p, Riffs, is perhaps even more skyward-sounding. Over five tracks, she flits through spacious synth sequences and sparse kick drums; there’s an overbearing anxiousness in the air, a sick awareness of the rapidly decreasing oxygen as she drags you closer to the stratosphere. Riffs is the rare record that baffles me every time I play it, both because of its own harrowing internal logic and because of what its triumphs suggest for an artist who hits stranger heights on every release. What earthly realms are left to conquer once you’ve broken orbit?Colin Joyce
25. Powell – Sport
In the short time that he’s been signed to XL Recordings, Oscar Powell has developed a reputation as one of dance music’s merry pranksters. Last year, Powell took out a billboard featuring the full text of a sample clearance letter from legendary punk grump Steve Albini that allowed Powell to sample one of his recordings but stated that he “detest own agency.”
Self-determination is a difficult topic to untangle on a record full of collaborations, especially given that it ends on the white-hot sunrise of “Red Eyez,” a track made by the London-based Lexxi alone. But the answer to her question proves relatively intuitive here, both because all of her collaborators are longtime pals, and because nearly overstuffed and nauseous pieces like “Dummy Track” demonstrate she’s a natural for the director’s chairknowing just how much detail to creep in before cutting it off. Like most of her work, an atmosphere of optimistic longing underpins the proceedings, but with the help of her friends, her work feels more impactful than it’s ever beena testament to the power of pushing ahead, with friends on your side.Colin Joyce
4. Kornel Kovacs – The Bells
The Bells begins with a half-remembered melody, a shadowy prelude-that-never-was to a 2014 track about getting fucked up. It sets a precedent for an album that revels in its weightlessness, and a producer who seems to defy standard conventions of time. Kornel Kovacs plays with this temporal slipperiness over the course his debut double LPthe first two sides are a sparkling FM tribute to 80s synth-pop and funky disco-house, while the second slab is a glittering journey through disco atmospherics. Meanwhile, the album title refers to another decade, and specifically to Jeff Mills’s seminal 1997 techno track “The Bells,” a hypnotic roller which shares little in common with Kovacs’ record, other than its layered and organic approach. All of this makes for an album which confidently knows it can’t be easily bracketed by epoch or genre. So don’t think about it too hard, throw this one on at home while the album art cheekily smiles back, and do as one of its timeless tracks implores you: “Dance… While The Record Spins.”Jesse Weiss
3. Kaytranada – 99.9%
Overflowing with four-on-the-floor rhythms, washed-out bass lines, and crate-plucked samples, Kaytranada‘s music sits somewhere between the booty-bouncing beats of house and the funk of 90s R&B. It takes cues from the artists he grew up listening to as the child of immigrant parents in Montreal, but it also sounds fresher than anything you’ll find on the radio today.
His long-awaited debut album, 99.9%, pushes that outside-of-time logic even further, setting rising talents like rapper Vic Mensa and jazz experimentalists BadBadNotGood alongside unsung veterans like Craig David and Phonte of Little Brother. Whereas lesser producers would be overshadowed by such a cabal of guests, here, they only serve to accentuate the producer’s kaleidoscopic, percussion-first instrumentals. “You’re the One,” a collaboration with vocalist Syd tha Kyd, is a frontrunner for the best distillation of the Kaytranada sound. From the hand claps, to the Internet co-founder’s feather-light coos, to its reverberating synth bass, the track flows through you in an instant, infectious, loving rush of music.Britt Julious
2. Huerco S – For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)
Brian Eno famously first conceived of the idea of ambient music while bedridden after he was hit by a car. Unable to get across the room to turn up the stereoso the story goeshe found himself annoyed by, then enamored of music that blended into the room’s preexisting sonic environment. The genre he proposed was to beas he wrote in the liner notes for Music for Airportsas “ignorable as it is interesting.” But the beauty of For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)the producer Brian Leeds‘ first album-length foray into ambient musicis in its apparent rejection of this idea.
Leeds has said that he too uses this music to relax and recover while on his intercontinental travels between DJ sets. But this album is nestled more in the lineage of Hiroshi Yoshimura’s new age-adjacent tone pieces than the delicate drones of the Eno strain of ambience. There’s just a whole lot more movement on For Those of You than you might expect from an ambient record, from spectrally swelling synthesizers and gently sequenced electronics, to pieces that sound like sleepwalking club tracks with the drums skillfully excised. Instead of augmenting the spaces you inhabit, this gauzy latticework breathes and coalesces into something darker, wispier, more cocoon-like. The album’s not a way of coping with the world around you; it’s another world entirely.Colin Joyce
1. ANOHNI – Hopelessness
Earlier this year, sitting in the lobby of the Roxy Hotel in Lower Manhattan, ANOHNI informed me that she was going on an “eyes-wide-open” campaign.
“How wide can I hold my eyes, how much can I try to see, knowing that I’ll never see it all?” she mused. The former Antony and the Johnsons mastermind was referring, of course, not to the physical faculty of sight, but to a kind of psychic equivalent of ita willingness to hold open a space in her heart and her mind for the alarming headlines about American foreign policy and corporate surveillance and climate change she’d been reading in the news for the past 15 years, to allow the terror and sadness they elicited in her to sink in, to refuse to look away. Later on, I realized that she’d offered me a pretty perfect summation of what it means to be an artistnot to report the news, but to channel what it feels like to live it, to articulate what it feels like to be human in the midst of, or in spite of, the political, social, and economic realities of one’s time.
Hopelessness, her sixth album, embraces this definition of art more literally than most, using palatial, club-inspired production from Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never as a launch pad for some of the most disarmingly direct social commentary our generation has heard from an artist. She sings a song about Obama that calls the president by name. She sings a song from the perspective of a young girl whose family has been killed by an American drone bomb, and another about how incremental temperature changes may be slowly killing off species of flora and fauna.
Were it not for the motherly cradle of her voice and the ecstatic bombast of the synthetic horns and strings, it would all probably be too much to take inand to many listeners, it probably was. But after the election, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that while many of us spent that past few years hermetically sealed inside our hyper-liberal Facebook bubbles, blissfully ignorant of the things we didn’t want to see, ANOHNI was already looking. That didn’t make Hopelessness any less quixotic, any less crazy of an undertaking; it just reminded us that it was only as crazy as the world that ANOHNI is singing about.Emilie Friedlander