For many, escapism is the default rationale for dance and electronic music. That's understandable, given that dance culture was built in no small part upon a tradition of converting dark warehouses into sweaty bacchanals. But a movement toward building bigger, more detail-rich and beautifully architected wormholes within dance music itself felt like a defining trait this year.
While many of the artists we loved these past 12 months live in hotbeds like New York, Berlin and London, where they're from was far less important than what they represented: a big elsewhere, where place takes a backseat to narrative, and ideas can be explored on their own terms.
The following list — which is by no means exhaustive — runs down, in alphabetical order, the albums, EPs and tracks that had us writhing, humming, and chasing something resembling meaning in 2018.
Sinking Into A Miracle
When so much dance music now reflects the extremes of the world with bracing noise, it took four chaps from Glasgow's experimental and post-punk scenes to offer euphoric escapism. Featuring Richard Youngs' unmistakable voice, Michael Francis Duch's spacious double bass, Paul Thomson's (Franz Ferdinand) elastic drumming and Luke Fowler's gliding synths, AMOR's debut album takes the oblong shape of its first two 12"s and stretches oddball grooves into the glittery void. Occupying a space between Liquid Liquid's blustery avant-funk and Talk Talk's transition from New Wave to museum-piece art-rock, Sinking into a Miracle simultaneously celebrates and deforms house and disco traditions, seeking the beyond of the dance floor. —Lars Gotrich
Take Me With You
(Good Morning Tapes)
Anthony Naples' second album was, at first, envisioned as a gentle tribute-in-mix to quiet, fuzzy post-party mornings and the time he's spent with friends inside of them. Over 38 minutes, Take Me With You accomplishes exactly that; its soft-focus productions bleed and overlap into one another, shifting styles drastically while loopily cohering. The gel here is the strength of Naples' sensibility, vaguely arch and dreamy — and studied. Naples' stitches are blind, the groove shallow enough to drink from. —Andrew Flanagan
Flying, or should we say "swimming," below the radar, the digital-only Siren Islands is an album of mesmerizing beauty and slow-motion grandeur. Gracefully churning loops of undulating vocals, bubbling electric guitars and shifting synths submerge the listener into some imaginary underwater adventure. Born in Pakistan but now based in Brooklyn, Arooj Aftab carefully orchestrates her kaleidoscope of color, texture and repetition to produce a kind of ambience that is as calm as it is endlessly fascinating. —Tom Huizenga
Beta Librae crafts expansive zones with the shadows cast from the legacies of house and techno. On her third album, Sanguine Bond, the Brooklyn producer stretches the loop to the point of a sedated sway, using the subtlest of gestures to create the ideal preconditions for subconscious spelunking. There are echoes of faraway festivities, reaching out across time and space, and a handful of lamentful shuffles; "Skyla" gets under the skin in the most arresting of ways. To immerse yourself in Sanguine Bond is to revel in those fleeting moments when you can still trace the outline of last night's dream. —Ruth Saxelby
Wet Will Always Dry
For "NPR's Favorite Albums (So Far)" feature in June, Otis Hart wrote that "British producer Jamie Roberts (a.k.a. Blawan) is responsible for two of underground dance music's biggest anthems this decade. The relative ubiquity of the two tunes put Roberts on the brink of stardom, and then ... silence. The hiatus was partly due to an illness that landed Roberts in the hospital, but it was also intentional; the Blawan train was moving too fast in the wrong direction. When Roberts reactivated the alias in 2015, the vocal flips and samples of the past were jettisoned in favor of no-frills functional techno. The resolve pays off on Wet Will Always Dry, a moment of vindication for a musician determined to succeed on his own terms."
For NPR's 50 Best Albums Of 2018, Ruth Saxelby wrote this about Colin Self's Siblings: "One minute, Broadway-ready melodies emphasize the lifesaving potential of chosen family. The next, a techno freakout resounds with feminist scholar Donna Haraway's ideas about kin. There's also chamber pop and sonic collage, all strung together by Self's exquisite falsetto. In concept and in practice, Siblings celebrates the care that creates queer nonbiological families, and invites the listener to share in both the loving and the learning."
See the entire 50 Best Albums list here.
Phobiza Vol. 3: Amor Fati
Montreal-based producer Phoebé Guillemot's third release in a triptych that honors a made-up island state called "Phobiza" scans like a humid wonderland, lush and wet and ludicrously lovely. An indirect descendant of the "fourth world" school of music, which created dream universes of "unknown and imaginary regions" by unabashedly macerating what was once called 'exotica' with electronica, RAMZi's work is a mix of deliciously warm pseudo-ethnography and minimalist misdirection; a sensuous, mutated Pangea of sundry sounds – dub wobble, bird warbles, children's voices - that would neatly shroud an islet in heaven. And though Guillemot did not invent world-building within the matrix of dance music — or music of any stripe — in 2018, she very much makes it feel as if she did. —Mina Tavakoli
(The Trilogy Tapes)
U.K. electronic act Rezzett's functionally titled debut album exists in a murky space between ambient house and post-punk distortion. Like rays gleaming through the rain on the walk home, it's the record's curiously reflective melodies that draw the listener through the dirge. The music also makes room for a touch of jungle, the world-building spirit of techno and a decaying organ accompanied by an equally deranged choir. But its lasting impression is one of shredded energy; an after-hours soundtrack, drunk on in-between feelings, that snuck back into the club for one last dance. —Ruth Saxelby
Thomas Fehlmann thinks deeply and speaks softly — the contrast between the Swiss-born techno veteran and his outspoken British collaborator Alex Paterson, with whom he's performed as The Orb for nearly a quarter century, couldn't be more dramatic. With that fabled partnership currently on hold, Fehlmann, who has been making circuits sing since the '80s, emerged from his workshop with a beautiful record of extended, deceptively intricate, dub-checking explorations. —Andrew Flanagan
Slotting Devotion among the year's best "electronic" albums sells short one of the most distinct lyricists and singers of 2018. So how did Tirzah Mastin end up in this distinguished pigeonhole? It's the company she keeps. Mastin's debut album was produced by her best friend Mica Levi, a.k.a. Micachu, while her community in Southeast London fuels the city's underground club scene. But this collection of late-night torch songs slots just as awkwardly under labels like pop, R&B and experimental. The only truly fitting shorthand descriptor for Devotion is "best music of the year." —Otis Hart
(Halcyon Veil/Don Giovanni)
For NPR's 50 Best Albums Of 2018, Mina Tavakoli wrote: "Like a crush, or an orchid, fury thrives when nurtured slowly. For Philadelphia-centric sistren DJ Haram (a Discwoman-degreed Jersey/Philly/Baltimore club agitator) and Moor Mother (rapper, poet, activist-cum-soothsayer), this secret works as shared credo. Their soothingly-titled EP, Spa 700, trims and prunes away at a lifetime's worth of righteous furor — here, toward anti-blackness, the carceral state, the failures of performative allyship — for a work that seems to boom on the force of steadily administered catharsis." See the entire 50 Best Albums list here.
Electronic music's premiere auteur (and arguably self-promoter) attracted a spike of attention when Warp released the single "T69 Collapse" because of the accompanying visuals: a 5-minute panic attack that triggered the FCC's seizure warning. The video is truly mind-melting, so good that it obscured the excellence of the EP's other four tracks. Even without the visual, Richard D. James is in particularly good form on Collapse — envisioning a formless, shapeless energy that's perpetually on the brink of caving in on itself. There's simply no replicating James when he's determined to shine, and he brought it on Collapse. —Otis Hart
(Break World Records)
For years, the work of cosmic colossus Elysia Crampton has acted as a sort of hunting and gathering of cultural histories and sound sources to create a deeply personal mythology of trans-ness, of her Native blood and of ancient rituals. Her self-titled EP is certainly par for the Cramptonian course — with jeering voices, oblong time signatures, paeans to (trans) heroes lost by time — but it's difficult to consider this anything but her most accurate self-portrait to date. It's eponymous, for one, but it feels inescapably shaped by, and one with, a tangled geography of tensions, mysticisms and memory that surpass her previous work by several magnitudes of order. —Mina Tavakoli
To paraphrase a line often mistakenly attributed to Oscar Wilde, everything is about sex, except sex itself — sex is about power. Glasser knows this adage like a hymn. Sextape, Glasser's first release in five years, sucks together a series of recorded voices that speak frankly and openly about their experiences with queer sex. This in itself can be very sexy — of which Glasser is acutely aware — but things get spiky when these anecdotes, which writhe against bouncy, throbby, playtime production, start detailing images of coercion alongside narratives of pleasure. Like intimacy, it is a disorienting little trip, inherently and inescapably political, dopamine-rich and deliciously risky. —Mina Tavakoli
Raw Silk Uncut Wood
The title of American experimental producer Laurel Halo's most beautiful ambient work yet was purloined from Ursula K. Le Guin's translation of the Tao Te Ching, a 6th-century Taoist foundational text. "What works reliably is to know the raw silk, hold the uncut wood," goes Le Guin's passage. "Need little, want less." Joined by an organ and cello, Halo's digital bathwater is soothingly perfumed by measures of restraint and asceticism. Modesty lends this work — like the silk and the wood — its grace. It seems likely that Halo also took cues from Le Guin's conclusion to the text when writing this movement. As Le Guin's translation goes, "Beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning. It is the truth." —Mina Tavakoli
A Parade, In The Place I Sit, The Floating World (& All Its Pleasures)
Brooklyn-via-Kansas City producer Brian Leeds (perhaps best known under the moniker Huerco S.) presented two iterations of his ambient-techno sound this year: the exposed-wire ambient of Pendant, and a collection of older output released as Loidis. In three tracks over a half-hour, Leeds hopscotches between the highlights of his expansive oeuvre — the scuzzy, blissed-out house of "A Parade" is placed in repose with the lush, beatless ambience of "In the Place I Sit." Somewhere at its crossroads is "The Floating World (& All of its Pleasures), a fifteen-minute minimalist opus that recasts alternate possibilities for the producer. —Joshua Bote
Somehow, Somewhere They Had Heard This Before
Milan-based Thomas Feriero had a breakout year, releasing a shockingly idiosyncratic suite of work — refined and arch, stained and embracing. The production — brittle as smudgy newsprint, black-and-white-and-grey, but rich, too — gives Feriero's finely orchestrated post-industrial the feel of being remembered more than listened to. On "Talon," a gassed-up low end propels upper-register pixels; on "Taiko Death Rhythm," the beauty of that rhythmic art form is gnarled and deranged. —Andrew Flanagan
On Have fun, the Norwegian duo Smerz' second EP, they've stretched the limitations of their singular brand of electro-pop, continuing to unfurl familiar structures of R&B and pop with steely breakbeats, burbling dissonance and crunched, distorted rhythms. The hushed vocals of Catharina Stoltenberg and Henriette Motzfeldt, stand coolly above the sonic overload. They're blithe on "Oh my my" and quietly sensual on "No harm," but even at their most emotive, as on the EP's lonesome closing track "Bail on Me," there's a sense of calm that permeates — the sound of two artists, in unison, wielding total control over the self-imposed chaos that surrounds them. —Joshua Bote
Ross Tones' music is meant for closed eyes; his songs almost always announce themselves grandly, layer tightly and descend almost surrealistically. While the London-based producer and DJ released a series of EPs this year, now collected in the full-length album Loma, it was on the Trebuchér EP where his beautiful, breathing vision found its apogee. Its title track clears the high bar sets for itself, while "Tantrum" offers up a gloomier and more reedy transitory space. —Andrew Flanagan
Young Paint is the name that London electronic composer Actress gave a learning program — as in, literally, a program that learns — which he directed to codify a sonic vocabulary he developed over the past decade. This "self-titled" release is a show-and-tell of the AI's progress, and proof of its eerily accurate listening skills. There are uncanny piano melodies, slowly dissipating clouds of bass and, on the tongue-in-cheek "Ai Paint," the shake-and-spray sound of a graffiti tag. In a year that also saw Holly Herndon and Jlin introduce their own AI baby, Young Paint is more than an absorbing listen; it's part of an ongoing conversation around art and expression in the machine intelligence age. —Ruth Saxelby
Against All Logic
"I Never Dream"
Nicolas Jaar surprised earlier this year by releasing 2012 - 2017, an album that collected five years of work made under a pseudonym most of us didn't know existed. The collection is, unsurprisingly, reminiscent of the gifted New Yorker's earlier work, which conjured up disco, house, soul and yacht textures into its own universe. The slow build of "I Never Dream" was one of the album's most joyful, driven by a drum-and-bass-checking drum line and a rooting sample from early R&B group The Cookies. Jaar's talent for alchemy, yet again, seems able to summon a sunrise. —Andrew Flanagan
Concept albums can sometimes feel like thin or ambitious gimmicks, but the Scottish twosome known as Clouds have surrendered themselves, body and soul, to a premise that's as serious and thick and sprawling as a work of sci-fi legacy. It's based on a prolix slab of lore that recounts the story and architecture of fictional Neurealm — a speculative vision of Glasglow 400 years in the future that's suddenly under the control of a German-speaking civic conglomerate, addled with a drug crisis that breeds insatiable gang warfare and swallowed by nighttime raves as the only source of release in a pleasureless dystopia. The music that's meant to score this wild phantasm meets and matches its extravagance in voluptuous, ridiculous spades. Hyperbolic and myth-pregnant, baroque and borderline maniacal, "Skulcoast" sometimes feels like exhalations of hellfire sluiced from cracks in the earth's core, sometimes like a HI-NRG jungle freakout, sometimes like metallic demons mid-molt, shedding their exoskeletons, vomiting silver plasma and sludge. —Mina Tavakoli
In a statement that accompanied the premiere of the video for "PSA," New York noise artist Dreamcrusher summed up the song's message: "Submitting to society is submitting to the beast." Pivoting off a Katy Perry meme, in which she talks about having to pretend you're fine when you're not, the track illustrates that point by promptly exploding into mic distortion. In a slow-dance pattern, an electrocuted bassline provides just the plodding counterpart required to underscore Dreamcrusher's screamed denunciations of societal norms. —Ruth Saxelby
For NPR's 100 Best Songs Of 2018, Ruth Saxelby wrote: "Speed and intricacy are rarely associated, but across two remarkable solo albums Jlin has made that synthesis her own. Swerving around predictability, 'Carbon 12' finds the Indiana composer operating at a more reflective pace, turning to the marimba to lead a transportive melody. It was released as part of her score for Wayne McGregor's ballet Autobiography, which was guided by the choreographer's own genetic code. That intimacy is echoed in this track's rise and fall, an unfurling that turns life's light into motion." See the entire 100 Best Songs list here.
For Brooklyn pianist Kelly Moran's debut release on Warp, she wanted her latest foray into prepared piano to be, well, a little less prepared. "In Parallel" is perhaps the most scintillating instance of Moran's experiments in improvised sound. Naturalistic and delicately layered, each percussive sound percolates like a counterpoint to the harmonious piano arrangement. —Joshua Bote
"Drive," the centerpiece of Jenny Hval and Håvard Volden's excellent Lost Girls project, is, at once, entrancing and bracing. Hval's whispered, half-sung incantation belies the ambient fills, which are anchored by a hand drum and later a menacing snare-synth line. Hval ponders solitude, the subtle gendering of live performance and, towards its cathartic close, the role that art — whether Hval's own heady songcraft or "big arena concerts" and "big mainstream movies" — plays in the exploitation of our base desire for connection and feeling. It's plenty to consider, but for one of the foremost avant-garde figures working in music, it's merely the domain of road trip thoughts. —Joshua Bote
When Nathan Micay premiered his first single on Whities — another in the emerging label's string of successful releases — he proposed it as a rhetorical middle-finger to the ceaseless hellfire that constituted much of this year. "For me, these tracks are a rebuttal to the endless churn of negativity in the news and online," he opined. Micay locks into a satisfying groove, adorned with a sweeping, string-like synth fill. But the kicker comes in towards the five-minute mark, as a piano leaks into the proceedings like sunbeams through a dimly-lit stairwell. It's a moment of exultant, temporary bliss, a well-earned rebuttal, indeed. —Joshua Bote
"It Makes You Forget (Itgehane)"
For NPR's 100 Best Songs Of 2018, Mina Tavakoli wrote: "With breezy Korean dealt in sotto voce, a rubber bongo bounce and a melody as instantly detectable as a pop chorus or a logo, Peggy Gou's stickiest production to date has quickly become something of a metric for the varied ways that audiences in warehouses, fields, yachts and bedrooms share the collective, hot-headed euphoria of what it means to care for dance music. Stylish and unimpeachable, crystalline and maybe even chemically calibrated for shaking one's ass, it's a defining piece of the sort of pleasure-principled direction the new reigning dance order demands of its superstars." See the entire 100 Best Songs list here.
Taz & Meeks
One of the earliest lessons in the slippery relationship between language and meaning comes with repetition: A word or a phrase said aloud enough times in quick succession renders it simply a mouth sound or, in the case of "Obviously," a hypnotic rhythm. The work of Tirzah and Mica Levi in side-project mode, the song's combination of Levi's sighing synths and Tirzah's smiley rhymes serve as a succinct reminder of the potentiality of play. —Ruth Saxelby
Tom Demac & Real Lies
For NPR's 100 Best Songs Of 2018, Otis Hart wrote, "This song wants, nay demands, that you to feel something. That sort of prescriptive ambition can result in melodramatic garbage in the wrong hands, but Demac keeps things subtle until he doesn't. British trio Real Lies, the current kings of Anglo-Saxon saudade, provide the understated vocals, reminiscing over "yous" and whispering potentially profound phrases like "White flowers on the lamp post" and "Bliss to be alive." The deft mix of mystery and magnitude makes for one of the great rave anthems in recent memory." See the entire 100 Best Songs list here.