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 2020 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. I don’t rank these moments: I have only listed them below with a short explanation and analysis. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments or by replying to my twitter account (linked below), and feel free to share your own best moments too, of course.
Opening Rhythm in “Marhide” by Autechre (from 0:00 and throughout)
This slow, simple drum pattern captures Autechre’s continued brilliance in only a few seemingly mundane seconds. The fact that Booth and Brown have returned to using the classic 808 samples of their Lego Feet years in spite of their decades-long dive off the deep end of electronic experimentation signals their refusal to put aside a sound no matter how forward thinking their music might get. In other words, although their work has become increasingly abstract, arrhythmic and (until this year’s Sign) atonal, they never forsake the notion of “looking back” as a transformative or context-setting act of artistic grace. And beyond this, the reintroduction of a simple 808 sample into a landscape mostly filled with unidentifiable, computer-generated, digital synthetic alien terrain gives us as listeners a glimpse of the humanity and artistry behind their music. It’s like a poet writing a single rhyming couplet after years of nothing but free verse.
Vocal Sample in “Solitary Ceremonies” by The Avalanches (enters at 0:10)
Although The Avalanches newest album We Will Always Love You largely departs from their signature playfulness and novelty in favor of sincere (and often maudlin) aspirations of poetic coincidence and romantic encomiums to love itself, the gamble pays off when—like in their past work—they are able to find that perfect sample that succeeds in tying the themes of the album to something in the real world. There are several examples of such metaphors on this record, but my favorite is this brief quotation about communicating with the ghost of Franz Liszt, which brings together the album’s infatuation with ghosts, lost love ones, the afterlife, and of course the ongoing power of all music, no matter how large or small or old or new—which may sound cheesy, but somehow The Avalanches are able to bring these elements together so well on the album that you really want to believe.
Harp (?) Synth in “Lonely Bird” by Leon Chang (from 0:00 and throughout)
Leon Chang’s music relies on and builds from a nostalgia for the soundtracks of ’90s JRPG series like SaGa, Final Fantasy, and Chrono, and while the best tracks are usually defined by his ability to combine elements of that music with contemporary electronic music to “update” the sound, he occasionally captures the tone of those games too perfectly to ignore, which is the case here. The cadence and tone of the harp synth could have been taken straight from Chrono Trigger, and by placing it so deep in the album, its familiarity comes as a surprise to those of us already so immersed in the new world to which we have been introduced. In other words he’s able to basically copy a synth from a classic soundtrack and reemploy it in a way that makes it sound familiar, surprising, and endearing at the same time.
Vocals and development of “Auto & Allo” by Oneohtrix Point Never (from 1:30)
The psychedelic beauty of OPN’s newest album hits hardest here, in the second two minutes of the second song. Daniel Lopatin’s knack for uncanny electronic manipulation and Baroque Pop shines through more brightly in this segment than on the albums actual pop songs, perhaps because of its disarming simplicity and wide-eyed wonder. The song’s two-part structure also heightens the effect of the vocal entry quite nicely. I remember hearing the song for the first time while riding the train. I was exhausted, and it was late at night. I was fed up and frustrated with something and just wanted to get home. But the track caught me off guard and opened my eyes in a new way. I wish all the music I listened made me feel a new emotion in the way this song did.
Hand claps in “Starcraft” by The Smashing Pumpkins (from 0:00 and throughout)
What a ridiculous risk. Default setting 808 hand claps to open a Smashing Pumpkins track. By making weird, almost ironic twists like this, Billy Corgan has semi-successfully reinvented his pet project “band” another time, in the most remarkable way since Machina in 2000.