In 2019, it’s difficult to say what isn’t electronic music. Software dominates every genre, and everything we listen to and make is bought and sold through the internet. Some see AI as the next big step, others are terrified of it. But both sides of the argument carry an air of distraction from the very real current threats of companies who seem to get better at “disrupting” and capitalizing on music communities and industries every day.
Yet I’m always drawn back to theorist and producer Terre Thaemiltz, AKA DJ Sprinkles, who once said “house isn’t so much a sound as a situation.” Electronic music remains on the vanguard of technology, and thus the mainstream, but it’s also the most direct and affordable way many around the world now can learn to make music. So while electronic music feels more widespread than ever, the situations it allows us to glimpse feel more varied and specific than ever if you know where to look for them.
This list contains the best electronic albums of the year, but it also offers a series of situations that show how important and vital this music is right now. A DJ connecting with the music of their Persian heritage and releasing it into the LA beat scene, a hopeful Russian producer getting the courage to send their musical hero some demos who in turn becomes their biggest champion, or a Tanzanian veteran of their Dar es Salaam music scene getting an overdue moment of global attention and respect. They’re all different, but each feels aligned with the same sense of community, as well as shared traditions and musical forms.
Check out the 10 best electronic albums of 2019 below and be sure to share your own favorites in the comments.
10 Floating Points – Crush (Ninja Tune)
The music Sam Shepard makes as Floating Points is often smooth, sumptuous, and tasteful. All words that, if I’m being uncomfortably honest with myself, orbit a bigger word: boring. I think about that so much with Crush, an album inspired by improvised stints warming up entire stadiums for the xx with just a drum machine and the finicky, but incredibly distinct, Buchla synthesizer. The result is the most exciting music Shepard has made, gliding between passages of ornate orchestral beauty (“Requiem For C70 And Strings”), prickly sound experiments (“Karakul”) and frenetic dance tracks (“LesAlpx”) that all capture the energy of his DJ sets and live performances better than anything before.
It’s not simply a matter of stripping things down either, since Crush threads jazz and orchestral instruments better than the releases where Shepard was making a more concerted effort to do just that. Between all that fractured, synth-smeared beauty, it’s still smooth as hell, but Crush delivers a newfound tension that leaves Floating Points more unpredictable than ever.
9 Maral – Mahur Club (Astral Plane Recordings)
On her debut mixtape Mahur Club, Los Angeles producer and DJ Maral Mahmoudi delivers a raw collision of Iranian folk music, noisy psych, reggaeton, dub, and so much more. It all hits in a potent fusion that never lets up in its brief runtime, juggling you from one track to the next with little more than a moment to shift from ass-shaking to head-banging.
Her throbbing blown-speaker beats seamlessly meld with chopped-up samples of Farsi vocalists that catch you off balance every time. “Avesta Khani Reggaeton” locks into its titular beat so cleverly I still never see it coming, even with “Reggaeton” literally in the title. As Mahmoudi jumps from track to track, she lands on tremendous standouts like the industrial chug of “The Empty Edit,” then Iranian folk and Jersey club on the title track, or the bouncing “Coy Dub” bringing to mind Sister Nancy for a brief, brilliant minute. By the end, what felt unclassifiable becomes undeniable, and the possibilities of where Maral goes from Mahur Club feel virtually limitless.
8 Relaxer – Coconut Grove (Acid Test / Avenue 66)
When techno producer Daniel Martin McCormick shifted from his well-established Ital moniker to the mysterious and initially anonymous Relaxer project, it felt like an outlet for darker, more atmospheric work. That was true for early singles and unsettling ambient debut A Family Disease, but with Coconut Grove he manages to circle back to everything great about either project and delivers the best album of his career.
Coconut Grove seamlessly trades off between neon-lit techno crackling with odd percussion — like “Cold Green” or the lush “Breaking The Waves” — and sprawling, beatless soundscapes like “Fluorescence” and the glassy “Steeplechase.” It’s an experimental album, but never a challenging one, as its eerie palette never fails to draw you further into its surreal world. From the playfully damaged opener “Serpent In The Grove” to the closing epic “Finally Forgetting,” it’s a near-perfect hour of music that finds McCormick in total control of his craft.
7 E-Sagglia – My World My Way (Northern Electronics)
The list of noise artists that cross over into techno is long and the list of those who do it well is short, but Toronto producer E-Sagglia might as well be in a class of her own on My World My Way. The album’s glitchy, hammering synths are ear-searing, but the sense of euphoria scales with every step on tracks like the explosive gabber on opener “Aziza” or the off-the-rails drum ‘n’ bass of the title track.
Yet while My World My Way is sequenced so that every moment you feel like your head might explode Scanners-style, E-Sagglia responds with something like the somber, tense mood piece “Stars Are Dying In Succession,” as well as a brilliant pair of vocal contributions. Vocalist Thoom murderously screams through the show-stopping drum beats of “Alia,” and Oil Thief delivers a Prurient-style murmur through the shimmering distortion of closer “One Last Midnight.” It’s an album as carefully put together as a rollercoaster, leaving you gasping, shaken, and lining up for another ride.
6 Caterina Barbieri – Ecstatic Computation (Editions Mego)
Italian modular synth virtuoso Caterina Barbieri makes music that sounds like you’re peacefully traveling through space at lightspeed. Her swirling waves of arpeggiated synth make time melt away and give the impression of moving slow and fast all at once. Building off her towering 2015 debut Patterns Of Consciousness, this proper follow-up appears smaller in scope, until you realize each piece forms a suite-like journey as expertly charted as a space voyage.
Pieces like “Closest Approach To Your Orbit” and the jaw-dropping 10-minute opener “Fantas” deliver the kind of dense patterns of synths that have made Barbieri one of the most exciting names in experimental electronic music, while others find her reaching new worlds altogether. “Spine Of Desire” is almost trance music in abstract as its pointillistic synths ride an endlessly rising Shepard tone into infinity, while “Arrows Of Time” seems to fly back to the past with the help of an angelic chorus and harpsichord. Barbieri’s music already sounded as vast as the universe, and with this crucial release she shows she’s never done expanding.
5 Sisso – Mateso (Nyege Nyege Tapes)
Go to any good club from Berlin to Boston and you will probably find someone talking excitedly about Nyege Nyege Tapes. These last few years, the Kampala-based label has committed so passionately to sharing and celebrating music from its home of Uganda and other Central African regions beyond that they’ve gained worldwide attention with their positive, unifying vision and some of the most head-spinning rhythms (not to mention BPMs) on planet Earth.
Every release from Nyege’s 2019 series on singeli — a hugely popular dance form in Tanzania — is worth your time. But it’s best captured in Mateso by pioneer Mohamed Hamza Ally, whose work as Sisso and studio in Dar es Salaam have provided both an influence and space for the scene to grow even more. It’s a story that brings to mind Chicago footwork and the late DJ Rashad, especially when you hear the lightning fast rhythms of the title track or “Biti No. 7.” But singeli is very much its own brilliant form and listening to Mateso will make you fall in love with it in real time.
4 Regular Citizen – Sleeping Unique (Presto!? Records)
Russian musician Ivan Olegovich has been composing since his early teens, but never released anything until a chance meeting with one of his heroes, Warp-signed wunderkind Lorenzo Senni. That led to Sleeping Unique arriving via the Italian producer’s Presto!? label. Like Actress’ knotty abstractions crossed with the 16-bit serotonin rush of Rustie’s Glass Swords, this brief, staggeringly beautiful collection is the kind of out-of-nowhere genius debut you dream about, but couldn’t possibly imagine until hearing it.
Tracks like “Callum Auzy The Gabber” nearly trip over themselves out of the gate, enthusiastically juggling enough ideas and melodies for an entire album in two minutes. Culled from over 50 demos Olegovich sent to Senni, each flawlessly sequenced track picks up after the other with a tumbling momentum that never lets up. “Latent Passion” might offer the most graceful 46 seconds of music I’ve heard this entire year, a melodic barber-pole that abruptly cuts off, hanging in silence before swooping into the rush of “Hyper Dense Wind of Pleasure,” a song which sounds exactly like its title.
Sleeping Unique leaps from contemplative lows like the meditative piano centerpiece “Touching Softness” — which could soundtrack the saddest moment of any ’90s JRPG — to gleeful highs like the harpsichord-in-a-blender blast of “Nikky Fairy Band.” The label has already hinted at plans to mine a second release from Olegovich’s truckload of demos. As these dozen perfectly polished and arranged gems prove, a sequel cannot come soon enough.
3 rRoxymore – Face To Phase (Don’t Be Afraid)
If you aren’t familiar with Hermione Frank’s rRoxymore EPs over the last few years, you might initially mistake her debut LP Face To Phase as a particularly blissful ambient record. Its opener “Home Is Where The Music Is” floats with a kosmiche synth melody and chirping crickets. At one point she sings a brief line that sounds like she’s keeping herself company in a vast forest. It’s not until midway through the following “Passages” that the shoe drops and her first off-kilter, anxious beat swings into full motion.
Unpredictable, kaleidoscopic and as organically psychedelic as a magic mushroom, Face To Phase skews linearity for a sound that grows all around you at once. It’s a dub techno album that rejects the genre’s tendency to shoot right into space, instead burrowing into earthy atmospheres and natural sounds like woodblocks, handclaps, and rainfall. There are massive grooves to be found in the syncopated shuffle of “Forward Flamingo” and the pinball percussion of “Hectadrums,” but Face To Phase is at its best when searching inward — like the dubby, neon-streaked pulse of “Someone Else’s Memories” and the prickling “Energy Points” — when its quick rhythms sound like they’re being observed on a microscopic level. So many electronic albums treat “hypnotic” simply as a means to an end, but with Face To Phase it’s only the beginning. And rRoxymore sounds like she’s only getting started showing us around her sonic greenhouse.
2 Barker – Utility (Ostgut Ton)
Released on Berghain’s Ostgut Ton by one of the legendary Berlin club’s longtime resident DJs, Barker’s long-awaited debut album is like hearing techno’s recent trend towards drumless, airy euphoria lift off straight into zero-gravity. Utility is one of the most immaculately-formed techno albums of the decade. You can’t spot a single edge or seam as each track tops itself in a climb towards some unattainable peak. But something remarkable happens midway through: Barker seems to look back during this breathless climb, and gradually his tracks fill with a bittersweet majesty that only grows more powerful and self-reflective.
It finally hits all at once on “Models Of Wellbeing,” a track echoing Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)” in its melancholy wonder, a sensation that carries into the climactic title track. And it’d be an incredible ending, but what makes Utility a true masterpiece is that Barker still has one final act to play out. In its last two tracks, the rocket fuel runs out completely and Barker soundtracks the gentle float back down to Earth. As the weary “Die-Hards Of The Darwinian Order” crawls through the album’s graceful closing nine minutes, it finds as much power in the comedown and in turn elevates its highs even further. Utility can encompass the arc of an entire life-changing night out, and if you gaze through its diamond structure just the right way, all the cathartic power of techno itself.
1 Pelada – Movimiento Para Cambio (PAN)
I think about more and more utility these days. What is the utility of dance music? I used to think it provided an escape, but to what exactly? Dance music may be a great relief from the outside world, but it’s harbored just as much poisonous activity and abuse of power as any other entertainment industry. At the same time, it often feels harder than ever these days to hear music championing resistance in any genre without a weary hopelessness, even skepticism. And by then you’re just about ready to escape back into the club or the party or the venue or wherever helps you shake off reality. It’s a frustrating dichotomy that probably makes a few people a tremendous amount of money.
But now in moments of escape or hope, I always find myself coming back to Pelada, a Montreal duo who turn that paradox on itself with Movimiento Para Cambio, a debut album that could double as both the best electronic and punk album of 2019. The title means “Movement For Change” and in the context of this volcanic dance album it’s a pun good enough to make Throbbing Gristle smirk and the Knife jealous.
Though it fuses the political fervor and genre-clearing vision of the latter’s two best albums, it’s the former that singer Chris Vargas brings to mind on opener “A Mí Me Juzgan Por Ser Mujer” (“I Am Judged Because I Am A Woman”) with their throat-shredding vocals. It’s a song about seeing the devil in the eyes of men, and the fearlessness they feel being born a woman, owning and celebrating a bloodline built through history on survival and resistance with every commanding roar. However, their furious delivery hits with the ecstasy of a house diva above producer Tobias Rochman’s euphoric acid house, breakbeats and Roland 303 squelches whipping like a tornado.
It’s “like oil and water,” as Rochman put it in one of the duo’s few interviews. “We were adversaries, but then we teamed up, I guess. We’re both strong-willed individuals. We don’t like to take shit from people and don’t really like to be told what to do. It’s better if we’re on the same side.”
That quote best captures Pelada’s seeming confrontation between Vargas’ fervent vocals and Rochman’s colorful, airy house music — there isn’t one, Pelada simply hits you on both fronts at once and never let up. “Habla Tu Verdad” (“Speak Your Truth”) is a queer anthem in which Vargas walks the finest line between belting and screaming, as effervescent synth pads rain like confetti and somewhere underneath a piano chord progression glimmers with the same spare beauty as Derrick May’s techno classics. Vargas sings in Spanish the entire album while conveying feelings that connect beyond language, but still I found myself translating lyrics online and more than once left in tears by the beauty and pain of what I read.
For all the ferocity, Movimiento Para Cambio is sequenced like the best of dance mixes and knows exactly when to shift gears. The first half of “Asegura” — a justifiably paranoid track about surveillance technologies — Rochman delivers a twinkling synth that sounds like a sinister satire of PC Music. “Granadilla” is a breathy, sultry R&B track rocked by synth washes and dubby squiggles that’s followed by the swirling organ loops of the hypnotic instrumental “Más Caliente Que El Infierno.” Through every track, the pair defiantly tear through the club, not looking for escape, but to restore community, and in turn form a true sense of resistance. In both its message and transcendent music, Movimiento Para Cambio rips through electronic music in 2019 as its ultimate rallying cry.
Listen to a playlist of key tracks from each album on Spotify.