My friend Jack suggested I add this category to my year-end lists back in 2016, and since then it’s been one of my favorites to write. The idea is that I pick a few points or short segments from songs released in 2019 that impressed me for one reason or another in terms of their electronic compositional experimentation, production, sound design, engineering, or something else. This could be a single well-crafted sound, a well-placed sample, a bonkers breakbeat, or a moment in which everything splits open and veers into a wholly different direction. This year there were certainly fewer such moments from past years (and this may reflect my changing tastes more than the actual state of electronic music), but nonetheless, what follows are my selections. I’ve added a short explanation below each moment. They are neither in any particular order, nor are they ranked or judged: they are simply great.
About 15:00 into “Place in the World Fades Away” by The Caretaker
Perhaps the impact of this moment derives mostly from its place within the rest of the album, and so I feel it necessary to give some context. After several hours (for me, nearly 6 CDs) worth of hearing The Caretaker mentally decay over the course of Everywhere at the End of Time—and even just within Part 6, after an hour of near-complete confusion and darkness—we are finally treated to the climactic death sequence of our dementia-ridden protagonist. The smoke clears for a full, albeit broken, orchestra (perhaps more ballasted than even SotL could muster), who in a limping dirge finally give the listener and the work’s subject a long-awaited farewell to memory, and life.
About 7:30 into “Eternity, the Stars, and You” by Kyle Bobby Dunn
This is the moment of drone music’s ascension into something beyond ambience. It is the Veil of Maya torn. For me it perfectly simulates the moment in which, while one is enjoying the romance and the pleasures of our world, one realizes with sheer horror her own cosmic impotence. It is the moment we realize that in our audacity to challenge the gods we have bitten off more than we can chew. It is a horrible light.
About 8:40 into “Kimi” by Gallery Six
Although I have written about this moment before, I will take this chance to reiterate the brilliance of using a bird call as the central melody in a song, though I think the point in this track in which the synthesizers recede, allowing the call to take its place back in nature, may be even more brilliant. (At this point I recall the role of the film director in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” who like a surgeon cuts into his patient, the diegetic world.)
1:30 into “Frontier” by Holly Herndon
The complexity and density of Herdon’s uncanny choir on PROTO is best exemplified by “Frontier,” which begins simply as as a choral piece, and then shifts into a closely edited work of electronic music. Mostly it seems that Herdon achieves the effect at the point in question by muting and unmuting different tracks of choral performers, which seems simple, but in the hands of such an adroit producer, the song coalesces into an exciting triumph.
2:40 into “Screams from the Sky” by Krzysztof Kotlinski
I have also previously written about this track, but I wish to call further attention to how well Kotlinski is able to use noise (pitch generator), acoustic sound (piano, cello), sampled sound (running water), and synthetic sound (wash) together to suggest an elaborate image or conflicted feeling. It is remarkable not only for its excellent execution, but also for the risk involved in bringing together such disparate sounds. I mean this moment is from its premise a very daring idea in terms of his choice of instrumentation, but it certainly pays off.
Opening Loop in “Recall” by Plaid
Although I was ultimately quite disappointed by Polymer, “Recall” has a real gem of a beat: it’s Industrial Glitch in its most dance-able form. It’s only a shame that Plaid doesn’t develop the song more: they leave it in two diametrically opposed parts that build within their respective sections, but fail to connect. Perhaps that’s, conceptually speaking, the point, but I think it is contrary to my aesthetic preference with respect to Plaid’s music. Of the albums they have released since their re-emergence from scoring films, Polymer and Scintilli are full of loop-based builders and The Digging Remedy and Reachy Prints are generally more complex in terms of composition, and I prefer the latter. That said, the divergence in “Recall” gives a striking impression, especially coming from a duo so known for their melodic sensibilities.
The first minute of “mouth agape,” by Telefon Tel Aviv
It took me a few listens to pick up on this moment. It is a sputtered drone, parabolically increasing and decreasing its speed. It is synchronized with a beat in the left channel. There is also the blank white noise of a live mic or tape in the background. These three sounds revolve subtly, and ultimately make up one of the most peaceful moments of Telefon Tel Aviv’s most opaque work yet. But for me this moment isn’t special simply because of its placement within a largely bleak record, but more generally because of its attempt to reconcile grid-driven, computer and MIDI-dependent electronic music with the kinds of boundary pushing glitch you hear from groups like Autechre. For me, this is a technically important moment for electronic music that should point toward new possibilities for producers (although there are many other such moments on this album for which one could give such praise).
0:55 into “Darling” by TR/ST
Woah, TR/ST drops a beat one-minute into a two-minute-long track. And the beat is a low-fi break sample. And it’s a Goth Darkwave banger, like all of his music. But seriously, for me “Darling,” and the rest of The Destroyer – 2 is incredible refreshing and forward-thinking in the wake of the generally rehashed sounds of The Destroyer – 1. This moment was the first time I really realized that Robert Alfons had decided to explore completely new territory on the new record.
By Isak McCune