DJ Mag’s top 50 albums of 2018
Our end-of-year list compiling 2018's biggest albums...
As both producers and audiences have opened up more and more cross-pollination between sounds in recent years, the possibilities for the album format have become endless in electronic music. And the results in 2018 have been pretty astounding.
From harrowing bass music, dissonant IDM, pulsing electro, engulfing jungle, bubbling ambient and beyond, the year has seen a raft of more esoteric works garner widespread acclaim.
As such, our list sees a number of electronic music’s most forward-thinking artists deliver some of the strongest material of their career. Something many have argued as unthinkable for electronic music in the album format in the not-so-distant past.
With that in mind, delve in below, to see DJ Mag’s top 50 albums of 2018.
One of New York’s finest, Eli Escobar has had us dancing since back 2007; his early work on Plant Music, Nurvous Records and his very own Night People rooted his name firmly in the house scene. Known for putting out quality music, it was natural progress to move into album territory — and what better home than the legendary Classic Music Company? ‘Shout’ is the LP that follows ‘Up All Night’, and it’s a beautiful collection of soulful grooves and raw interludes. But, crucially, it does way more than just work a dancefloor. The album tells many stories, a deeper message addressed to the current state of the USA and its plight. The more you listen, the more subliminal messages you’ll unearth.
How the N.A.S.T.Y crew founder turned Newham General hasn’t released an album before 2018 is a mystery; irregardless, his debut full-length shows just why he’s been at the top of the grime game for so long. Name an MC that spits harder…
Channeling the whirlwind of emotion he endured after being sentenced to prison, receiving death threats and getting caught in the middle of a media frenzy, Berlin-based-Brit Dax unleashed a hammering LP of industrial techno, electro and social comment. Powerful stuff to say the least.
Whatever you think you know about techno titan Chris Liebing, you should forget it before listening to his latest album. He says it’s the record he has always wanted to make, but has only been able to having finally found a collaborator – Ralf Hildenbeutel – who can help him realise his vision. And that vision is a beautifully bleak one, where droning landscapes, paranoid spoken word utterings and deep, supple rhythms add up to something hugely absorbing and melancholic. Gary Numan, Mute artist Polly Scattergood and readings of Alan Watts, Liebing’s favourite philosopher, add layers of depth to an album that bares all the hallmarks of the Mute artists the German grew up on, from Depeche Mode to Nietzer Ebb. Despite the overall moodiness, the record’s darkness soothes, comforts and seduces you. An utter success.
Silvia Kastel’s ‘Air Lows’, released via Blackest Ever Black, is a masterclass in the use of space and atmosphere. The Berlin-based artist, whose music blends jazz, avant-garde electronics, musique concrète and IDM, delivered eight captivating and transportive compositions on this January album and, in doing so, became an early contender in our albums of the year chart. From the meditative pulse and resonant mantra (“Lay Back”) of ‘Target’ to the eerie, cosmic flow of ‘Concrete Void’, this is an album that delivers more and more with each careful listen.
Miss Red’s outsider attitude and confrontational delivery come together with gruff beats from The Bug, twisting up bashment, dancehall, grime and dubstep into a coarse but energetic set that promises big things to come from this vocalist.
There aren’t many producers out there like Peder Mannerfelt. A studio luminary and groundbreaking electronic artist and performer, ‘Daily Reminder’ reminded everyone of his peerless talent and sense of humour. “A record without a concept or ulterior motive,” the album is a series of vignettes and motifs full of noisy melodic electronics, bizarro found sounds, field recordings and club-ready bass mutations. A weird and rewarding trip through the mind of a peerless producer.
What do you get when you take a bunch of the UK’s best rappers and put them together on the one of the UK’s best hip-hop labels? An unmatched blend of obsidian wit, twisted reality checks and beautifully executed wrongness, obviously.
After delivering three EPs on Dixon Avenue Basement Jams, Big Miz dropped his debut album 'Build/Destroy' on the label at the start of 2018. Its nine tracks of techy deep house could easily have been released as three separate EPs, with the Glasgow-based DJ/producer sparing no time in getting into productions designed for the dancefloor. Highlights include jacking cut 'The Great Beast' and the album's ear worm, ‘The Hadal Zone’, which was almost omnipresent at festivals through summer.
An explosion of sound that melds effervescent melodies with epic synth lines and percussion that ranges from metal to techno in its inspiration, idea entropy levels may be sky high on ‘Monsters Exist’, but an intergalactic vibe binds it all together. And that Brian Cox vocal…
It’s taken a full decade for dBridge to follow up his groundbreaking debut album ‘Gemini Principle’, and though his sophomore effort is a grand departure from the first, its moody industrial tones and stripped-back shoegaze electronica is no less forward-thinking or crucially apart from the norm.
Marquis Hawkes’ album on Houndstooth this year was a masterclass in vintage house flare. Over a concise eight tracks, the longstanding UK producer explored everything from heart-rending, Twin Peaks-reminiscent synthscapes (‘Beton Theme’, ‘The Matrix’) and jazzy house (‘Instrument of Thought’) to hammering analog techno (‘Tough Love’) and acid ('Hope In Our Hearts'). Collaborating with Jamie Lidell, ‘We Should Be Free’ is an anthemic house cut that retains a classic Chicago vibe while effortlessly incorporating an essential contemporary edge.
In a year that saw the electro renaissance establish the sound in equal stature to house and techno on the European underground, Marc Acardipane delivered his first album under his The Mover alias in 16 years. With eight tracks that trace an expectedly apocalyptic take on electro and old school techno, 'Undetected Act from the Gloom Chamber' also saw 'Dark Comedown' and 'Doom Computer' establish themselves as pseudo dancefloor smashes.
Ivy Lab have set the standard for LA beats-inspired halftime — and what a very high standard it is. Their debut album perfectly summarises the way they can combine gnarled bass and clunky percussion and come out sounding utterly funkadelic.
Expanding on the classically-inspired electronica of 2016 effort ‘Hollowed’, Brighton’s Ital Tek conjures 13 tracks of powerfully dynamic, beautifully sculpted future music. Cinematic as they come, why somebody hasn’t given this guy an eye-boggling sci-fi noir to score yet is a mystery.
Matching playful, almost toy-like pads and bleeps with wonderfully tricky, free-wheeling breaks, this traditionally produced (if you can say such a thing about ‘90s techniques) debut from an self-confessed dance music noob is both incredible and good pointer as to why IDM is back in a big way.
On his first album under the Mr. Fingers moniker in almost 25 years, Chicago legend Larry Heard reminded the world of just how influential he still truly is. Over 18 tracks and 100 minutes, Heard ventures deep into deep, atmospheric territory while never losing touch with the vintage Chicago sound he was so pivotal in championing. From the defiant and sprawling ‘Electron’ and the previously released ‘Outer Acid’ and ‘Inner Acid’, to the spellbinding ‘Quasars’, this is an album that feels simultaneously galactic and grounded.
The debut album from Laurie Osborne has been a long time coming, but it’s oh so worth the wait. As the name suggests it’s a journey through club music; a richly textured, subtly nostalgic medley of UK sounds that remains firmly future-focussed.
Jazz fusion with track titles that could come from either Impulse (‘Medina’) or Keysound (‘LDN Shuffle’), South Londoner Kamaal Williams’ outing as part of a four-piece makes for quite a London response to albums such as Flying Lotus’ ‘Cosmogramma’. Links across the Atlantic to the likes of Kamasi Washington and Thundercat are clear, but ‘The Return’ carries a swing that could only come from musicians who’ve had a few sweaty nights at clubs such as FWD or Co-Op. This is jazz fusion for the modern age. Loyal to the spiritual, progressive lilt of its '70s antecedents but with all fat excised, it’s lush but lean, and will leave you wanting more.
Gary, Indiana’s Jlin followed up 2017’s enthralling ‘Black Origami’ with yet another boundary breaking work of experimental, drum-led electronics in 2018. ‘Autobiography’ is Jerrilyn Patton’s soundtrack to esteemed choreographer and director Wayne McGregor’s award-winning ballet and it is, put simply, a triumph. Jlin moulds a heightened sense of elegance and poise around her percussive mastery and rawness here, noted in the cascading marimba’s ‘Carbon 12’ to the warped bass of ‘Mutation’ and throughout. ‘Autobiography’ thrusts one of the most exciting artists in electronic music to new heights.
Under the Bliss Signal banner, our December cover star Mumdance teamed up with Irish black metal/experimental electronics wizard, WIFE, to release an album that fused ferocious percussive energy with brilliant ambience and engulfing noise. From the eerie opener ‘Slow Scan’ into the cinematic epic of the title track all the way up to the distorted guitars and rapid beat of ‘Floodlight’, Bliss Signal’s debut is a sensational work of genre mutualism.
Hungarian artist Gabor Lazar delivered his solo debut LP proper for The Death of Rave in May, with eight tracks of ballistic music pushing the boundaries of the abstract breaks found on his 'EP16' from 2015. 'Unfold' is an utterly wild ride from start to finish – with its fizzing productions a doozy for fans of Errorsmith, SOPHIE, Jlin, AFX and Lorenzo Senni – and one of the most forward thinking dancefloor records of the year.
Though he’s best known as Maceo Plex, Barcelona-based Cuban-American Eric Estornel was making electro a long time before he ventured into tech-house. Electro is where his heart is, and you can tell on this retrospective collection of his early work as Mariel Ito. ‘Kepler 186b’ is an icy sci-fi thriller of arpeggio bass and sinister keys, ‘Approach’ has crisp beats and weird keys that sound like bizarre creatures communicating, ‘Lovely’ is an especially good electro-breakbeat fusion with the sense of tension he’d later develop, and ‘Portal Mover’ crackles with energy like an electricity pylon. This is superb stuff.
Demdike Stare’s first album in two years saw the Manchester-based duo deliver what is perhaps their most accessible long-player to date in October. Still possessing the epic beauty the duo manage to find in the challenging and the confrontational, the nine-tracker further explores the esoteric take on club sounds found on their Testpressing series, taking in broken dancehall, shortwave jungle and skewed UKG, 'Passion' sounds like a Joy Orbison set imagined by Aphex Twin.
A further deconstruction of the weightless instrumental grime he’s made a name from, Wen’s sophomore LP is beautiful and deadly. If club music itself could have an out-of-body experience, this is what it would sound like.
Etch’s mastery of junglistic breaks has been known for some time, but his debut album brings this together with snapshots of garage, grime and bass music — occasionally applied with a weightless technique — in a way that truly defines the hardcore continuum.
The much anticipated follow up to Kamasi Washington’s 2015 album ‘The Epic’ saw the the Los Angeles-born jazz saxophonist and composer bring together a slew of collaborators – Freddie Hubbard, Thundercat, Terrace Martin, Ronald Bruner, Jr., Cameron Graves, Brandon Coleman, Miles Mosley, Patrice Quinn, Tony Austin – alongside his band The Next Step. Over its two parts, split into 'Heaven' and 'Earth', and over 16 tracks, they explore the chaos of the modern world on tracks like 'Song for the Fallen' and 'Show Us the Way'. There was also a five-track third part, titled 'The Choice', hidden inside the packaging of the LP and CD versions. Buy it now.
‘Knock, Knock’ found our March cover star DJ Koze intertwining his trademark textures and melodies to create a melancholic but hopeful record – and easily one of his best works. From the opener ‘Club Der Ewgkeiten’, Koze’s sense of tension and release is established and, over the next 15 tracks, he covers myriad influences and styles, featuring guests as diverse as Roisín Murphy, Lambchop’s Kurt Wager, Caribou and Arrested Development’s speech. The album also featured one the summer’s most ubiquitous cuts, the emotive, sample-led and French-touch inspired ‘Pick Up’.
The legendary UK techno pioneer returned with the first album under his Surgeon moniker in two years in Spring, this time inspired by Bardo Thodol (The Tibetan Book Of The Dead). ‘Luminosity Device’, which comes out on the artist’s own Dynamic Tension imprint, contains many of the beloved hallmarks of his music: exquisite sonic design, immersive rhythms and subtly mesmerising flow. These are carried out with a palette of modular synthesisers, meticulously sequenced to the point where the constant minute shifts in tone or beats produce profound and hypnotic experiences in the brain. It is in these moments that one can really feel Bardo Thodol’s influence on this LP — exploring the transition between life, death and rebirth via altered states of consciousness and loss of ego by completely losing oneself in this heady mixture of sound from start to finish.
“You can heal yourself with frequency,” Aïsha Devi told DJ Mag in an interview this summer. That notion carried through her sophomore LP, ‘DNA Feelings’, an album which found the Geneva-based artist fusing soaring vocals, pulverising rhythms and ethereal, dismantled trance melodies and frequencies to create an experience that was at once cathartic and challenging. Released via Houndstooth, breathtaking altered singing and shimmering electronics cascaded through ‘Intentional Dreams’ while supercharged rave stabs gave ‘Inner State Of Alchemy’ a fervent purpose. A sublime collection.
Not only an impeccable example of the maniacal yet infinitely detailed chaos the Scottish duo can produce sonically, the time and effort invested in creating a full accompanying fictional concept shows a level of dedication, vision and understanding of the album format that few artists today still share.
Bruce’s ‘Sonder Somatic’ on Hessle Audio was one of the most auspicious debuts of the year. Fusing UK bass, dubstep, techno and lush sound design, the Bristol-based DJ/producer proved himself as one of the UK’s most promising talents. From the jolting, colourful splashes of ‘Elo’ to the towering, dancefloor destroying hysteria of ‘What’, this one is essential listening both on headphones and over the best speakers you can find.
German pianist Nils Frahm’s beautiful compositions have crossed over from the classical world to appeal to the avant-garde electronica community, and also frazzled ex-ravers previously more familiar with pianos in banging house breakdowns. As his audience has grown, so has his music. Whereas early works were recorded at home and last album ‘Spaces’ was compiled from performances in concert halls, ‘All Melody’ has been produced in Frahm’s vast new customised studio in Berlin, and he has used the space to create his most expansive music yet. But while there are many more layers here, they don’t suffocate the intimacy that has been Frahm’s hallmark ever since he was sitting alone at his piano in his bedroom.
Blawan’s ‘Wet Will Always Dry’ is a timely reminder of how satisfying a proper, no nonsense techno LP can be. There can be pressure when delivering a lengthier collection to weave divergent vignettes into the tracklist in order to prove versatility and, while this can work, it can often come off as forced. It’s refreshing to find none of that here. On this album, Jamie Roberts uses distinct expertise (and his own voice, in parts) to introduce vibrancy, emotion, complexity and depth to a collection of nevertheless brutal and urgent modular techno.
Russell E.L. Butler’s debut LP, released via Left Hand Path, is a flurry of electrifying and experimental techno that explores the idea of space, both sonically and thematically. Recorded live using their hardware set-up, Butler's work feels at all times immediate and purposeful as it veers from the cascading and at times disonant trills of 'Builder', 'These Seeds' and 'Cure Water' to the rapid ungulfing rhythms and atmospheres of 'Concrete Block', 'Love Unlmtd' and the title track. Full of rhythmic complexity, this album takes ownership of the very idea of "techno" and utilises the spaces between and beyond the conventional to demonstrate the genre's resolute capacity to feel defiant and liberating, while still remaining dancefloor focussed. Dedicated to the 36 individuals who lost their lives in the tragic fire at Oakland’s Ghost Ship venue in December 2016, ‘The Home I’d Build For Myself and All My Friends’ is cathartic and resolute. It displays an artist whose work deserves to be heard the world over.
On ‘Song For Alpha’, Daniel Avery evolved away from the obsidian club-fit density of 2013’s ‘Drone Logic’ into much more refined territory. While a vivid techno punch remained on cuts like ‘Projector’, ‘Clear’ and the engulfing ‘Sensation’ and ‘Diminuendo’, this album owed a lot more to ambient, psychedelic, IDM and shoegaze sounds. ‘Stereo L’ and ‘Days From Now’ invoked Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada, while on top of the cavernous beats of ‘Glitter’, ‘Quick Eternity’ and ‘Slow Fade’ were distorted and atmospheric nods to My Bloody Valentine, William Basinksi and Lawrence English. A powerful, mesmerizing album.
While ultra-prolific electro producer Jensen Interceptor’s other stuff has been superb, it seems he saved his best tracks for this storming collection. Right from the off, ‘Mother’ kicks like a mule, with the tough electro-techno of ‘Ultramax’ mixing dual basslines and horror tones to detonate the club. ‘Drip Freq’ is even better, another four-four beast, while ‘Time Echo’, with long time inspiration The Hacker, has a touch of synthpop and EBM in its arpeggiated synth grind. Just buy it, OK?
Deena Abdelwahed’s ‘Khonnar’ is one of the most distinct, socio-politically charged and important albums from a “club music” producer to be released in 2018. Tackling global issues of homophobia, gender imbalance and the refugee crisis, the Tunisia-born, France-based DJ/producer crafted an album of confrontational sound design and intense rhythms. Utilising traditional Arabic musical elements and lyrics with disquieting elements of EBM and techno, the Concrete resident’s debut LP on InFine Music is a challenging, unforgettable collection.
An extravagant conceptual exploration meets even wilder sonic experimentalism. Serene and chaotic, beautiful and brash, ‘Power’ is confronting and exhilarating in equal measures. A brilliant example of why Lotic is so revered and how their sound has evolved thus far.
Berlin-based artist Objekt, aka TJ Hertz, is constantly smashing through the hard and fast boundaries that occupy much of dance music. On ‘Cocoon Crush’, his second album for PAN (following 2014’s ’Flatland’) continues this experimentation while jettisoning any dancefloor directness. The record is a demonstration of both Objekt’s technical skill and musical prowess. In a world awash with new music, the blessing and curse of the digital age, his grand vision continues to light the way for what is possible.
A masterpiece of sound design, Max Cooper’s latest is built with a palette as luscious, vibrant and varied as they come. From structurally simple but harmony-rich tracks like ‘Hope’ and ‘Memories’, to noise marauder ‘Reflex’, heavily layered club cuts ‘Phi’ and ‘Emptyset’, and the organised bleeping, percussive chaos of ‘Platonic’, Cooper’s tracks are so gargantuan they threaten to gobble you up entirely upon listening.
Top and tailed by dappled piano and earnest strings, but prone to erupting into devasting breakbeat sections, Djrum’s sophomore album finds a place halfway between Ryuichi Sakamoto and Special Request. There are moments of reflection in the softness of ‘Unblocked’ and ‘Creature, Pt. 1’, tracks which could well be picked up for film soundtracks, while the club is still more than catered for on punchy efforts like ‘Creature, Pt. 2’ and ‘Sex’.
With her uncompromising, breakneck take on electro, Helena Hauff has become one of the most sought-after DJs in the world. And while her production abilities were never in doubt, they also haven’t been the focus of the wider world — until now. On ‘Qualm’ she presents both richly textured stompers and quirky beatless numbers, yet it’s on tracks where these sounds intertwine like ‘No Qualms’ and ‘Panegyric’, which owe as much to shoegaze as they do electro, that the album is at its best.
Rife with cross-pollination, Martyn’s debut album for Ostgut continues the Dutchman’s deep connection to a very UK sound, offering swinging, chunky 2-steps and gnarly tribal numbers that wouldn’t sound out of place on Hemlock or Hessle. There’s a more cerebral element too though, that seems to derive from taking stock and a desire to challenge himself after a tough year personally. Some of his best form yet.
The ambient opener to Shlømo’s debut album, ‘Hadal Zone’, is a masterclass in tone, texture and full-bodied atmospherics. And from there things only get better. Heavy on IDM, including the wonderfully glitchy title-track, the LP straifs from the dissonant cathedral-like ‘Napalm’, through the late-starting techno of ‘Suicide Ghost’, brutality of ‘Brother’ and more beatless magic in ‘Minotia’ and closer ‘Wish You Were Here’. An opus, no less.
Within drum & bass there are few things more recognisable than the ‘Metalheadz sound’ — always tough but always touching, roughing you up but letting you drift off to that special place only dance music can. Blocks & Escher have always embodied this ethos while still sounding original, their melancholy productions bringing a tear to your eye as you raise your gun-fingers in salute. Stunning, cohesive, and irresistible.
Free from the confines of her Throwing Shade moniker, Nabihah Iqbal lays down a clear statement of artistic intent with her debut album under her given name. While bearing a definite resemblance to post-punk, the album takes a more Balearic approach, bathing the listener in a wash of wistful guitar, pads and Iqbal’s vocals, which swirl and blend together seamlessly. One to get completely lost in.
Having released no original music in six years as Pariah, it was a pleasant surprise when Arthur Cayzer eased this out. And far from his early club-ready cuts or the slamming techno of his and Blawan’s Karenn project, Cayzer offers a sublime lesson in transportive ambient music. Organic in its sound and with track names like ‘Seed Bank’ and ‘Conifer’, it begs to be set to timelapse footage of a forest or a stream; calm, considered and just plain lovely.
With so much lazy over-use, it took releases like Skee Mask’s debut to show why using breaks can still be so effective. He comes in from a minimalist, Burialesque angle — nestling his percussion subtly amongst emotive soundscapes while neatly avoiding pastiche. Embracing ambient warmth, pulsing electro, IDM and junglistic cuts that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Autonomic podcast, ‘Compro’ is an intricate and balanced collection.
SOPHIE’s debut album is the distillation of a sound that’s as much shimmering PC Music pop as it is gut-wrenching bass music. Through cinematic, heartstringtuggers like ‘Is It Cold In The Water?’ to the riotous neon-soaked savagery of ’Ponyboy’, it flips effortlessly between being shamelessly fun and as delicate as daisies in a hurricane. Above all, it’s as futuristic as SOPHIE has ever been — there’s nothing else like it.
Photos: SOPHIE – Charlotte Wales, Pariah – Kasia Zacharko, Helena Hauff – Tanya Chalkin, Djrum – Oliver Clasper, Max Cooper – Alex Kozobolis, dBridge – Khali Ackford.
Want more? Check out our top 50 tracks of 2018.
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