We’re not ones for preemptively compiling “best of the year” lists, particularly in music. There’s always one or two records or, as is coming increasingly more common, a small flurry of mixtapes that drop at the tail end of December that cause us obsessive, neurotic critics to compulsively rearrange our lists (see: last year, and The Weeknd’s Echoes of Silence, his surprisingly perfect ending to a trilogy that most thought lagged a bit in the center). That said, we’re ready to put a lock down on 2012 as it relates to the year’s releases in the brilliantly flourishing “weird” dark electronic scene. We’re living in a post-witch house landscape now, where the pop music landscape is slurring and blurring into a weird, dark hybrid of what we used to know… and that’s an awesome thing. It allows for the likes of Charli XCX’s Super Ultra tape to rub against the epic void of releases from Blackest Ever Black. So, in this festive time of year, let’s get dark.
Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland — Black Is Beautiful
The members of revered sound anarchist duo Hype Williams have, in the past few years, garnered a reputation not unlike that of a more modern KLF, and it’s fitting: with live shows that could consist of a bodybuilder flexing to a glitch soundtrack or an hour of nothing, an utter refusal to confirm even their real names, and a general sense of trolling, Blunt and Copeland — if those are their real names — really don’t give a damn in the world what you make of them. It’s fortunate, then, that what they actually produce is so amazing. Consisting primarily of tracks labeled as numbers, Black Is Beautiful‘s underwhelming surface leads to a deep, heady interior that would serve well as a re-soundtracking to Mulholland Drive. Pieces smear together like an emotional drive through the night, and the simple act of starting to listen to this record will make you want to take one.
Laurel Halo — Quarantine
So, sure, it was a year of pop and weird mixing like chocolate and peanut butter, and then we got this. Laurel Halo’s never been one to release a single track not on her own musical terms, and Quarantine screams that from, and to, the heavens. An album of absolutely baffling and completely flooring artistic choices, Quarantine features Halo’s voice starkly unaltered and stacked on top of itself in layer after layer, striking at the album’s cold, synthetic compositions. It’s an album that, in the best way, can make for a dizzying, nauseating listen when taken as a whole, and your author has definitely had his share of issues with consuming it. That said, it’s a powerful statement from an artist who’s continuing to blaze electronic trails.
Featureless Ghost — Personality Matrix
All that you need to know about this Atlanta-based duo can be gleaned in one viewing of their hued, retro-futurist video for Personality Matrix‘s “Flash.” Matt Weiner and Elise Tippins produce a backward-looking, forward-thinking, icy-cold synthwave that’s still infused with real emotion. They’re also absolutely stellar live, and 2013 promises to be even bigger than 2012 was for them.
Lyle Horowitz — The Haunted Tour
Under-the-radar independent hip hop producer Lyle Horowitz conducted an interesting Halloween experiment this year on his Facebook page, providing an in-depth look at haunted houses across the country, with his own commentary, sourced videos, etc. Then, he made a record inspired by it. The Haunted Tour is a highly strange, terrifying little beat tape that sources found sounds, horror film themes and samples, and even bits of EVP into its heady brew. It’s a head-nodding trip through every possible phase of fear.
Raime — Quarter Turns Over A Living Line
The debut full-length release from stalwart label Blackest Ever Black would be just as fitting to listen to while staring out the window in an airplane as it would be as the soundtrack to slow suffocation. Raime’s music is spread thickly, doom-laden and ominous, like a giant storm just on the horizon.
Charli XCX — Super Ultra
Mark this mixtape down as the moment everything converged. Rising goth-pop star Charli XCX has been, for a minute, the first glimpse into a post-Zola Jesus world, one where the weird kids smush Rihanna onto their iPods next to deep cuts from Disintegration and then dance to it all awkwardly but with the glee of being in front of a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden. With Super Ultra, Charli XCX lets her freak flag fly, and the results are exhilarating. Opening with a cameo by Brooke Candy, the tape’s too-short running time manages to squeeze in starry-eyed ecstasy pop, trap, a piano ballad, and a How To Dress Well remix, all with Charli XCX’s heart firmly locked and loaded on her sleeve. It’s a boldly weird step, but given her career trajectory it (and everything she does now, in this context) makes sense.
Light Asylum — Light Asylum
Light Asylum’s debut album is filled with snot and snarl, a vibrant piss-off of a record in a scene that many would describe as having become complacent, at best. This is due in no small part to the ferocity of the duo’s frontwoman, Shannon Funchess. Light Asylum’s raw, sparse electronics play off of the protest nature of many of their songs, making the entire record burn with urgency. And, honestly, “Shallow Tears” is simply one of the most beautiful songs ever.
Holly Herndon — Movement
“Damn, they don’t make ’em like this anymore,” Kanye West said on “Stronger.” He was, of course, referring to himself, but he could just as easily have meant Holly Herndon. Herndon makes studied, precise, and fascinating sounds reminiscent of the sorely missed Mira Calix from WARP records’ heyday. Her songs are exercises, controlled experiments that make even the concept of one’s own body manifest as sound. Movement is massive and will stand as such for a very, very long time.
Actress — R.I.P.
Actress’s R.I.P. can be a difficult record to get attached to, because it does its best to repel. It’s made up moments where beats don’t hit, where bass falls apart, and where kicks fail, and that’s part of the true beauty of the record. Actress made an anti-album, a beautifully nihilistic piece of work that will still absolutely shatter the trunk speakers of any high-school kid.
Holy Other — Held
By far the most beautiful record on this list, Held is either an idyllic musical place to submerge feelings or one of the most heartbreaking electronic albums ever released, depending on the emotional state from which you approach the album. Holy Other’s palate is emotional pop balladry, 8-bit, “witch house,” trap, and ambient, but with it he paints smeary comedown sunsets that are like love letters never sent, then burned.
Azar Swan — “Amrika”
Not an album, true, but we’d be remiss in recounting the best dark/weird music of the year if we didn’t mention Azar Swan. From the ashes, so to speak, of doom-folk group Religious to Damn, Azar Swan is a band that’s doing everything, absolutely everything, that’s right about dark electronic rubbing shoulders with pop and every other genre. World music? New Age? Bodega-pop-tronic? It’s impossible to categorize this song, about frontwoman Zohra Atash’s immigrant upbringing, but it’s also impossible to forget it.