15. Dan Deacon - Mystic Familiar [Domino]
Mystic Familiar, Dan Deacon's latest record, fits right in with the composer's catalog of shimmering, welcoming electropop. The product of meditation and Brian Eno's creative-inspired card set, the album follows the titular character, an inner voice that resides in everyone. The lack of distinct beats allows the mind to slip into the album's endless chords, which are held as fermatas as long as Deacon needs them to be.
From the beginning of "Become a Mountain", Mystic Familiar draws the listener in using two classic musical tropes that are quite foreign for Deacon: his natural voice (a bit Boy Least Likely To by way of Future Islands) and a piano. Using the instrument as a metronome, he constructs this mountain by layering the track with additional piano melodies and vocal effects. The slow crescendo of the whole note that comprises the entirety "Hypnagogic" conjures the view from the peak. As it drones into "Sat By a Tree", a discernible beat finally arrives, which gallops forward like a Mura Masa song. -- Mick Jacobs
14. Pet Shop Boys - Hotspot [x2 Records / Kobalt]
"The sense of so much missing when the world gets in the way," laments the ever-observant Neil Tennant, whose reporting skills clearly never left him. Forty years in music and celebrity failed to dull the edge to his lyrics or, ironically, add much pizazz to his trademark drawl. His and Chris Lowe's 14th album as the Pet Shop Boys, Hotspot, finds the famed duo tackling the modern condition once again with equal parts passion and cheek.
To cope with gloom, Hotspot turns toward memories and daydreams. As people grow more in-tune with the world's general chaos, the more it clashes with the ideals of order and contentment, every fairytale and Hollywood film depicts. Alongside fellow electropop auteur Olly Alexander, they pine for a "Dreamland" where they might find the existence they desire for themselves. These dreams lie either in the recesses of their minds or their distant past, such as the titular figure in "Will o the Wisp". -- Mick Jacobs
13. Stats - Powys 1999 [Memphis Industries]
Powys 1999, Stats' second album, and the second in two years, features ten songs that always feel like they're gliding on a dance-rock groove, even when they actually aren't. Ed Seed, the band's main creative force, made a name for himself as a touring guitarist with acts like Dua Lipa and La Roux, but Stats is where he goes to make his own music. And that music is catchy and clever and always glossy.
The first single, "Naturalise Me", bumps along on a simple mid-tempo dance beat, accented by a little glitch synth noise. A basic bassline also pulses through the song's opening, while Seed sings in a breathy upper register. After about 20 seconds, the track starts to add a collection of synth sounds that open up the music into a pulsing dance groove. There's a buzzing low end, a swirling, arpeggiated high end, and a tambourine, each contributing to the song's feel. Seed's vocals rise into a falsetto climax to the verses and stay in that range through the chorus. It's a fun track with strong hooks, and that is consistent throughout the album. -- Chris Conaton
12. Marie Davidson and L'Œil Nu - Renegade Breakdown [Ninja Tune]
Marie Davidson's newest album is a delightful and eclectic release that superbly fulfills her promise to "tell stories and sing". It's credited to Marie Davidson and L'Œil Nu, the latter referring to her husband Pierre Guerineau (with whom she also releases music as the electronic duo Essaie Pas), and Asaël R. Robitaille.
Musically, the album is profoundly varied in comparison with its predecessors. Tracks like "Renegade Breakdown", "Worst Comes to Worst", and "C'est parce que j'm'en fous" retain Davidson's trademark electronic style. The former sounds like a natural progression from her previous album, an irony surely not lost on listeners who discern Davidson's characteristically sarcastic commentary in the lyrics.
These tracks are catchy, but their intelligence transcends the superficiality of beat and rhythm. Renegade Breakdown may not appeal to superficial listeners seeking a quick fix of genre or easy background music. However, it will surprise and delight the true music aficionado who gives it their full attention and who will emerge from the experience with a sense of deep satisfaction. -- Rhea Rollman
11. Cubicolor - Hardly a Day, Hardly a Night [Anjunadeep]
Hardly a Day, Hardly a Night sees Cubicolor continuing to explore the textured, gently evolving sonic terrain of Brainsugar in more intimate detail. Although shaped by loss, uncertainty, and self-doubt, the songs on Cubicolor's second album never linger in the same emotional space for long. Throughout, the band uses the music to process negative feelings before channeling them into something more positive and uplifting. Musically, their meticulously crafted soundscapes morph from plaintive electronic pieces into uplifting dance tracks in the space of a single song. Hardly a Day, Hardly a Night is a richly drawn, triumphant record and testament to the fact that sometimes you have to go with your gut and start again. -- Paul Carr
10. Aalok Bala - Sacred Mirror [Independent]
In the sprawling rainforest of electronica that opens up the album, Aalok Bala (short for Balachandran) finds something definitively human: connection. The LA-based Chilean artist takes on many roles throughout her second EP — the congregant chanting from their pew, la bruja casting a hex to dreamland, the star-gazer pining for moonlit romance. But on "body of light", her voice becomes both a machete cutting through the sonic thicket and a caress of intimate memories. "Like a sea grows with water," she sings amidst the simulated noise of cicadas and wind chimes. "No need to explain."
These contradictions lie at the heart of Sacred Mirror. On "sueño", the closest Bala gets to rehashing her 2018 debut album, Rebirth (namely, the instrumentation of "Planets"), dreams (the English translation) are not a powered-off state of rest, but one of sitar psychedelia and heightened consciousness. The myth of the separation between people and nature falls apart, the two entities consummated into one with whispering sensuality: "Quiero ser como agua"; "I want to be like water." -- Austin Nguyen
9. Whipped Cream - Who Is Whipped Cream? [Big Beat]
Whipped Cream, otherwise known as Caroline Cecil, hails from the west coast of Canada. The Vancouver-based Cecil spent her youth carving out a career in figure skating, which was brought to an abrupt end due to an accident on the ice at the age of 18. It brought her figure skating career to a tragic close, but she soon found a new purpose in applying the intense concentration of her professional sports training into learning how to produce music. Now a sought-after DJ, her debut album reveals the exciting ways she's poised to innovate electronic dance music, even in this era of shuttered clubs and social distancing.
There's inspiring defiance here, one that offers the listener courage and strength for the dark times in which we're living, while simultaneously impelling our bodies to move, dance, keep going. Cecil is not only a superbly talented musician but one with an exquisite sense of the zeitgeist. The album is a perfect tonic to all the bottled-up rage and pent-up energy many of us are feeling this year while reminding our bodies of the dancefloors to which we will one day return. -- Rhea Rollmann
8. RUI HO - Lov3 & L1ght [Planet Mu]
RUI HO works with a soundscape so electronic that the deliberate nature of its crafting makes it hyper human. Her self-styled, bionic voice a perfect addition to the futuristic scene. There is something almost divine about how she wields total control over her sonic realm, from digital drums (the hi-hats on "Fire Walk With Me" are as earthy as it gets) to synthesized melodies and beyond. Even in its most frenzied moments, the slickness of Lov3 & L1ght's production makes it feel serene. Heavenly sonic colors flow freely in RUI HO's artistic sanctuary, and the view from the audience is one of sheer euphoria. -- Adriane Pontecorvo
7. Holy Fuck - Deleter [Last Gang]
On their fifth album, Deleter, Holy Fuck have worked out how to articulate themselves in their native "Holy Fuck tongue". With many of the tracks beginning as improvised jams during shows, it feels like they've finally managed to capture what is so thrilling about the band's live show. It is also their most fully realized and cohesive album to date with an intentional ebb and flow to the LP with few reminders of the chaotic dance jam band that emerged with 2005's self-titled debut.
The album opens with the pulsing, arpeggiated synth loop of "Luxe". Featuring Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor (who recorded his vocals in Jack White's Third Man Records), it's an energizing, bassy house track with Taylor's vocals bouncing and echoing in space as he croons the line, "I'd like to scrap all of this / Start all over again." With each layer, the track grows increasingly kinetic as springy synth chords and warped electronic samples smoothly lead to a pounding club-ready beat. -- Paul Carr
6. Ane Brun - After the Great Storm [Balloon Ranger]
In a season full of shockingly good releases, Ane Brun's eighth album of original music is a slow-burning delight, full of melodies that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. For 47 minutes, she holds her aching heart up to the sun, begging for warmth and some semblance of order to all the chaos that surrounds her, yet she is defiantly tethered to hope. These bruised, elegant songs cut to the core of what it means to be uniquely human. With the arrival and subsequent onslaught of COVID-19, death has quickly moved into the foreground of our global thoughts, and Brun's latest collection is a reminder that life has an expiration date, and every ticking second is a gift. -- Ryan Lathan
5. Jónsi - Shiver [KRUNK]
It's been ten years since Jónsi released a solo album. His 2010 debut, Go!, pointed the way as the experimental pioneer charted a course for a new sound. Go! has a much more optimistic and sunny disposition than the Sigur Rós back catalogue, however, his deviation from the band's characteristic sound was slender. Now on Shiver, Jónsi has enlisted the equally experimental mind of A. G. Cook as the album's producer and a co-writer of many of the album's tracks.
A. G. Cook is the founder of music label PC Music and it would be an understatement to label the label as merely 'experimental'. PC Music is experimental and then some. The strongest changes to Jónsi's sound and highest PC Music influences are heard on the fourth track, "Wildeye". A. G. Cook and his kitchen sink, more-is-more philosophy is in full effect throughout. The starkest and seemingly 'un-Jónsi' element is the use of mixed media, hocketed drum loops. A hocket is a medieval musical technique in which a melodic or rhythmic line is completed by several interviewing parts, each part, in isolation would be sparse, but tangled together the parts make one comprehensible piece of music. -- B. Sassons
4. Austra - HiRUDiN [Domino]
Canada's Austra returned in 2020 with a bit of gorgeous Baroque synthpop in HiRUDiN. The album leads off with Bach-esque opening melody of "Anywayz" and its ethereal vocals before exploding into a sparkling, shimmering chorus full of clinking synths and Katie Stelmanis' sublimely beautiful multi-tracked vocals. It's quite literally one of the most stunning electropop songs that this writer has heard, and I was around for first-wave synthpop from the likes of OMD, Yaz, and others. It would be hard to top that opening, but the rest of HiRUDiN absolutely compliments the beginning. Gentle arpeggiated strings pluck away on "All I Wanted" as the synths slowly build around Stelmanis' haunting soprano. The brilliance of HiRUDiN is in how naturally pop and classical inclinations are blending into a form of art-electropop. -- Sarah Zupko
3. Working Men's Club - Working Men's Club [Heavenly Recordings]
Working Men's Club sport a funky form of electropop drawing on influences from Talking Heads and LCD Soundsystem to New Order and Krautrock. Most of the tunes on their critically-acclaimed self-titled debut album are up-tempo, funk-fried, synth-drenched dancefests with deadpan vocals and a surging forward feeling of propulsion. It's so easy to get lost in your head and body when you just give in to this music. Tracks like "Cook a Coffee" inject an indie rock edge with hard-charging guitars and hazy, fuzzy vocals, and create a great sense of variety across the album, lest any one sound carry on for too long. Working Men's Club have offered a stellar debut that marks the entry of an important electropop artist on the magnitude of a Hot Chip or Django Django. -- Sarah Zupko
2. Georgia - Seeking Thrills [Domino]
Inclusivity, love, unity, and, most importantly, having a bloody good time. They're the things that lure us back to the dancefloor time and time again. At its all-embracing, life-defining peak, the clubbing experience should be a euphoric, coming together of like-minded souls under dazzling strobe lights. On her second album, British artist Georgia has managed to bottle that feeling as she joyously celebrates the dancefloor and all who inhabit it.
Musically on Seeking Thrills, Georgia distills her various influences, pulling in synthpop, disco, Chicago House, and 1980s Detroit techno with sprinklings of UK garage, dancehall, and even post-punk. It's a heady, energetic fusion of sounds with Georgia taking things back to basics as she constructs sounds from analogue synths and simple drum machine beats. The whole thing is designed to take you back to the comforting, sticky floors of the dancefloor, where the only thing that matters is you and the music. -- Paul Carr
1. Erasure - The Neon [Mute]
Erasure to the rescue once more. Stuck in lockdown, barricaded in our homes, fearful of contact with strangers, every expedition to the grocery or drug store an exercise in fear and caution, mask politics emerging as the touchstone for a world already gone to hell in a handbasket in so many ways.
Cue Erasure's 2020 album: The Neon. Music may not by itself cure all these ills, but the virtue of superb electropop is that it helps make them seem a bit less insurmountable. When have Erasure not been around to help us through the dark times? With hundreds of songs and 18 studio albums spanning a 35-year career, Erasure are like a sort of fairy godmother of electronic pop, always emerging during the dark moments of our lives to brighten things up with cheery beats and hopeful energy. "We'll come around and find our way through darkness, guided by the stars," sings Andy Bell. Yes, we will, thanks to Erasure -- those most sparkling stars of all. -- Rhea Rollmann