Top Ten Albums of 2018

Jon Lindblom lists his ten favourite records of 2018, with a particular emphasis on recent electronic dance music.

This year, I have mainly listened to music that in one way or other has its roots in 90s dance culture – but importantly also builds upon it in intriguing ways. The main reason for this is that while I always have appreciated this kind of music, I am increasingly feeling that it is where the most original formal experiments are happening in (music) culture today. Justifying this claim would require a longer discussion not suited for this context, so let me just say that a recurring theme of most of the albums that appear on this list is what has become known as ‘post-genre’, or ‘deconstructed’, club music – often with influences also from non-Western countries – and that what particularly attracts me to this kind of music is its rhythmic inventiveness, which expands on the rhythmic experiments of the 90s in fascinating ways. This if of course not unique to 2018 as such (although I would argue a very contemporary phenomenon), but this was the year when I started thinking about it more specifically – which quite obviously is reflected in the list.

10. Bonaventure – Mentor EP (Planet Mu)

An amazing follow-up to 2017’s Free Lutangu EP, which compellingly blends African rhythms with Western dance music under the aegis of the thematic of alien abduction. After having been previously associated with labels such as NON WORLDWIDE, Planet Mu nevertheless felt like a natural home to the rhythmic psychedelia of the Swiss/Congolese producer Soraya Lutango. A first full-length album along similar trajectories promises to allow her to further expand on her compelling sonic vocabulary.

9. Nine Inch Nails – Bad Witch (The Null Corporation)

After decades of solid but somewhat bland releases, Bad Witch is the band’s best album since their classic The Downward Spiral (1994) – mainly because of its sonic complexity, which far surpasses all the interim releases despite the album’s modest 30-minute duration. Metal, noise, ambient, industrial and acoustic all combine into the fascinatingly rabid sonic landscapes that was what attracted me to NIN’s music in the first place.  Hopefully, this is the trajectory that the group once again will follow in the future, since that is when they are at their best.

8. Autechre – NTS Sessions 1-4 (Warp)

NTS stream

Autechre continue their more recent habit of putting out gargantuan releases with the 8-hour long NTS Sessions 1-4. It shows yet again that when they are at their best, there are still (after 30 years of existence) few who can match their formal rhythmic complexity. That is obviously quite extraordinary. However, the tracks are somewhat uneven and although there is plenty of material that for me could have ended up at the top of a list such as this, there are also too many average (beatless and less rhythmically complex) tracks on all four parts that somewhat lower the overall impression.

7. Jlin – Autobiography (Planet Mu)

Jlin’s soundtrack to the choreographer Wayne McGregor’s dance piece Autobiography brings back both the frenetic rhythmic experiments of Dark Energy (2015) and the Indian influences of Black Origami (2017) – but situates them in a different context through the dance piece and by surrounding them with several ambient tracks that if not as innovative as the tracks on the first two albums nevertheless offer a somewhat different angle on Jlin’s signature sounds. This may very well turn out to be an interim release for Jlin (it is not her official third album, according to Planet Mu), but it is still a great piece that covers some new territory. (Also, do not miss her collaboration with Holly Herndon and the A.I.-baby Spawn for the single ‘Godmother’.)

6. Aïsha Devi – DNA Feelings (Houndstooth)

Devi’s second album under her own name is just as good as the first and is similarly built around deconstructed shards of rave, as well as her astonishing vocals that ties the fragmented and brilliantly disorienting compositions together. In an age when vocal manipulation has become standardised even in pop music, electronic transformations of the voice is in-itself no longer immediately compelling – yet Devi’s amazing vocal science shows that there are still territories of the synthetic voice to explore, beyond those inhabited by bland autotune exercises.

5. Demdike Stare – Passion (Modern Love)

While Demdike Stare started out releasing fusions of ambient, drone, industrial and library music with occasional nods to 90s dance music, their more recent releases (i.e., the 2013-2015 Testpressing-series and 2016’s Wonderland) have positioned themselves firmly in dance-music territories. The same goes with Passion, which also highlights the duo’s compelling rhythmic science that fuses genres such as jungle, dancehall, grime and chopped-up noise into brilliant post-genre experiments. (Also, do not miss the accompanying four-part release Stitch by Stitch, which offers a more decompressed take on the duo’s music at the present.)

4. Sophia Loizou – Irregular Territories EP (Cosmo Rhythmatic)

At a first glance, the most recent release of Sophia Loizou does not look very intriguing: a white and academic take on jungle, which downplays the black and urban elements that were crucial to the formation of the genre as part of the 90s’ hardcore continuum. Yet this is Loizou’s best release to date – following the great Chrysalis (2014) and the somewhat underwhelming Singulacra (2016) – which offers a compelling take on jungle very much in tune with recent deconstructed dance music that hopefully soon will be expanded into a proper full-length record.

3. Amnesia Scanner – Another Life (PAN)

The long-awaited debut of the Finish duo lived for the most part up to the expectations. Aside from the expectedly brilliant technological experiments, the duo’s move to pop-song formats and introduction of the ‘sentient’ artificial voice Oracle stood out as the most interesting on the record and its vision of ‘avant-EDM’ apt to the chaotic techno-social terrain of the present. The only slight drawback is that the second part of the album is (for the most part) weaker (or, a bit more toned down) than the first, which somewhat lowers the overall impression of a release that at its best offered some of the highlights in music this year for me.

2. Marie Davidson – Working Class Woman (Ninja Tune)

Davidson’s fourth album is her best so far. A conceptual album that portrays contemporary life (particularly work and club culture) through on the one hand brilliantly dry humour delivered mostly through spoken-word, and on the other hand amazing sonic experiments mainly with complex rhythms but also with ambient and industrial elements. Overall, it is an addictive record that manages to combine the cinematic quality of a conceptual album with the formal complexity of club-music experimentation. I imagine that if Jenny Hval had made Blood Bitch (2016) into a dance album, it could have sounded somewhat like this.

1. Deena Abdelwahed – Khonnar (InFiné)

The debut album of the Tunisian producer (following 2017’s great EP Klabb, and a guest appearance on Fever Ray’s Plunge) brilliantly synthesises Western dance music such as UK-bass with sounds and vocals drawing upon her Tunisian Arabic heritage. On the one hand a vehicle of social criticism against cultural and gender conservatism in her native country, and on the other hand an astonishing collection of some of the best beats this year, Khonnar feels like an apt record to top this list following a year where the progressive thinking of dance music at its best is very much needed as one kind of antidote to the sociocultural and political conservatism of the present.