The 10 Best Electronic Albums Of 2020
This October, I went to a club for the first time all year. Music blasted and lights blared as I looked across an entirely empty room. See, I was the only person in the club, while watching my partner DJ to an empty dancefloor as part of a venue’s livestream for people to watch from home. Like much of 2020, it was a combination of surreal, bleak, and inspiring.
Electronic music is a genre that always moves forward and it proved that throughout this brutal year. People came together this year through livestreams and benefits, supporting each other on Bandcamp Fridays and organizing in video-chat parties like Club Quarantine. It was a time where we withdrew, finding new appreciation in smaller, soothing sounds, but it was also a year people stood up, producing unprecedented new forms of protest music.
Below you’ll find 10 of the very best electronic albums to come out of 2020. Some are directly inspired by this year. Others look toward optimistic futures or reckon with tragic pasts. Thankfully some sound like they were simply dropped off by aliens with way less heavy shit weighing on their minds. Also, much like last year (and the year before), the selections I’ve included don’t line up the same as Stereogum’s own top 50 albums and may not be the same as yours, but consider that a feature, not a bug, after the enormous wealth of music found this year. I hope you find new and familiar favorites among the list below and I’d love nothing more than to hear in the comments about what electronic music spoke to you this year.
Warp Records had many huge albums this year — Autechre’s unexpectedly gorgeous SIGN, Yves Tumor’s guitar opus Heaven To A Tortured Mind, and Daniel Lopatin’s star-studded victory lap Magic Oneohtrix Point Never. But the biggest-sounding release belonged to Milanese producer Lorenzo Senni, whose breathtaking Scacco Matto will make your heart race and break all at once. The album perfects a style Senni has spent nearly a decade fine-tuning, a unique approach to trance music that heightens melodies to a hyper-emotional extreme but removes the drums entirely. Drums would only slow Senni down as he sends dizzying flurries of hooks-within-hooks through songs like dramatic opener “Discipline Of Enthusiasm” and “The Power Of Failing,” relentless tracks that ride euphoric Shepard tones to seemingly infinite ends. Scacco Matto is the rare album that’s both uncompromisingly experimental and infectiously catchy.
Beatrice Dillon has become a modern visionary of club music with a style that remains impossible to pin down through a string of very different singles, EPs, and collaborations. Her jaw-dropping debut album Workaround takes that freewheeling spirit further by weaving scattered recording sessions into a hypnotic Mobius strip of mind-bending techno and elastic sound design. There are dream collaborations like Laurel Halo’s vocal turn on “Workaround 2” or Mica Levi collaborator Lucy Railton’s transformative cello playing, as well as idiosyncratic surprises including dubstep pioneer Untold playing electric guitar, legendary tabla player Kuljit Bhamra, and UK bass producer Batu simply credited for “hi-hat.” Those names act more like an ingredient list, however, as Dillon chops every sound into head-spinning rhythms and impossible shapes leaving Workaround a dazzling and singular experience.
Japanese producer Shinichi Atobe released a single beloved EP — 2000’s Ship-Scope, on legendary dub techno label Chain Reaction — before disappearing for over a decade and becoming something of a myth in the meantime. After being tracked down by Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker of Demdike Stare in 2014, Atobe began releasing albums on their DDS label that show he never stopped producing or evolving in his time out of the spotlight. By 2020, the sheer potential of a new Atobe album has been replaced by greater excitement of the very real discography he’s built. Yes blends moments that have become Atobe’s calling cards — the ultra-dry snap and rippling pianos of “Lake 2," the warbling percussion tripping over tightly-wound drums on “Rain 3” — with new surprises like closer “Ocean 1,” which recalls DJ Koze at his warmest, or the stunning title track, which builds a nimble piano loop into one of the producer’s most heart-swelling epics. Atobe has definitely made up for lost time, rapidly expanding his discography with albums that feel like modern classics. Yes has now become the best new entry-point into his mysterious world.
Producer, writer, and multimedia artist DeForrest Brown Jr. delivers his greatest work yet as Speaker Music with Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry, a record that celebrates techno as an expression of Blackness and a tool to inspire movements both physical and political. Brown maintains pummeling drum patterns through nearly the entire album as he threads a tapestry of elements including a devastating intro from poet Maia Sanaa, an atmospheric trumpet solo by AceMo, ominous samples of police radios, sirens, and helicopters, and his own voice, which appears in both spoken-word murmurs and breathy sonic textures. Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry represented techno and protest music at its best this year.
Argentinian producer Victoria Barca, AKA Vic Bang, makes miniature symphonies out of onomatopoeias, weaving a dizzying arsenal of bleeps, bloops, zaps, and plonks as she plays your brain like a pinball machine. Lira takes its name from the lyrebird, an animal known for its nearly supernatural mimicry ability, and the album is filled with synths as busily layered as competing birdsongs. However, Barca proves to be a master of controlled chaos as she fuses the lightning-quick drum programming of Chicago footwork with her lush, unpredictable synths to create a kind of exploded exotica that doesn’t sound like anything else around. A record that literally tickles your ears, Lira is one of the year’s most pleasurable oddities.
Auscultation’s third album is one of the year’s dreamiest and most beautiful dance records, even as it grows out of unbearable tragedy. III is Portland producer Joel Shanahan’s first album since surviving the 2016 Ghost Ship fire, a night he was booked to play alongside late 100% Silk artists Cherushii and Nackt. But III remains profoundly uplifting even when it sounds like it’s carrying the weight of the world -- like on the lush, ambient techno pulse of opener “Glowing Hearts In The Rainbow Room.” Each glimmering track moves with the bleary wonder of a pre-dawn rave, right up to the final delicate pulses of “Exit," a profoundly moving closer that hits you with all the catharsis of a sunrise.
Parris - Terrapin / Polychrome Swim EPs (Wisdom Teeth / The Trilogy Tapes)
Dwayne Parris’ music runs circles around most club producers without ever seeming to break a sweat. His one-of-a-kind tracks — a surreal, zero-gravity take on dubstep, with all the emphasis on the dub part — seem to move in slow motion before gradually surrounding you. In nearly a decade, he’s never released an album, but every couple years (if we’re lucky) he’ll drop an EP or a single of dumbfounding genius. In 2020 we got two EPs, Terrapin and Polychrome Swim, and taken together they make up the best club music of the year.
The former kicks off with “Soft Rocks With Socks”, a slow-burning groove that gradually overflows your ears with twinkling percussion and bubbling synths. If Terrapin feels like a definitive showcase of everything that’s made Parris so great, Polychrome leaps into a different dimension altogether with the fluttering eight-minute epic “Harajuku Girls," the live-kit workout “Yūrei,” and the closing “Aqua Surge”, which twists a break-beat into increasingly cloudy, kaleidoscopic shapes. Though Parris still feels like one of electronic music’s best kept secrets and the epitome of “your favorite producer’s favorite producer," his music couldn’t be easier to love. Start anywhere and these songs will have you smiling, laughing, and shaking your head in disbelief, so absorbed you won’t even notice you’re already dancing.
The Soft Pink Truth - Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? (Thrill Jockey)
Haunted by the rise of fascism in the United States, Matmos’ Drew Daniel aimed to map out a different kind of protest music by reimagining his solo project the Soft Pink Truth as an ensemble of friends, including the angelic trio of Angel Deradoorian, Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter, and Colin Self. A musical group-hug spread across two endlessly evolving sides, Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? merges chamber music, jazz, and house into a spiritual and moving experience, one that finds power in softness and strength in community.
Darren Cunningham, AKA Actress, has quietly become one of the most influential producers of the last decade. The double-album Karma & Desire just might be his masterpiece. It merges nearly every labyrinthine era of Actress in a way that feels newly accessible — the kaleidoscopic techno of Splazsh, the ornate ambience of R.I.P., and even LAGEOS, his album with the London Contemporary Orchestra — making you appreciate the full scope of his career like never before. Karma & Desire also finds the typically cloistered Cunningham experimenting with collaborations including string arrangements from composer Kara-Lis Coverdale, a dreamy spoken-word by soul singer Zsela hypnotically spread across two tracks, and a trio of songs by Sampha, who haunts the center of the album like a ghost on “Many Seas, Many Rivers.”
Karma & Desire perfects many sounds Actress has returned to again and again, from the dramatically crumbling pianos of “Save” to the chromatic synths floating through “Gliding Squares” or the sharp, high-energy shuffle of “Leaves Against The Sky.” Yet the album ends on something entirely unprecedented with “Walking Flames," the tender, uplifting collaboration with Sampha that hits with the shock of fresh air and sunlight. Karma & Desire caps an incredible career, but its greatest gift is that in 2020, it's made Actress’ future more exciting, mysterious, and unknowable than ever before.
Through this entire dystopian year, Emily Sprague’s Hill, Flower, Fog grew through the cracks like a defiant weed. During a time when technology seems to inform every genre of music, she inverts the feeling with an album that seems to imagine folk music for modular synth. The Eurorack synth format that became enormously popular during the 2010s — great, untamable walls of buzzing modules — feels like a punchline in 2020, as expensive and unsubtle as the mid-life crisis muscle car. Where so much modular synthesis can simply amount to “marvel at this mess I’ve made,” Sprague’s approach seems philosophically different. She treats her synth like a garden on these indescribably beautiful songs, growing patches like seeds and patiently maintaining them until they seem to reach the stars.
Much has been said about ambient music’s prescriptive qualities since Eno’s Music For Airports was pumped through terminals to calm down anxious passengers or synth inventor (and Bob Moog mentor) Raymond Scott debuted his Soothing Sounds For Baby series in 1962, but I’ve never experienced that feeling more personally than on Hill, Flower, Fog.
Originally unveiled in March as a Bandcamp Friday self-release to benefit a community project for LGBTQ+ youth, it reappeared in a rearranged form last month as an official release on RVNG Intl. Between those two dates, the album carried myself and countless others as the bottom simply seemed to drop out again and again — through job losses and health crises, as a balm for anxiety and grief, both for the pets we said goodbye to and the family members where we weren’t allowed the chance. And it’s power grew and grew every time. Hill, Flower, Fog is both an ambient album for the ages and an electronic album for the future. We are so lucky to have it in 2020.