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20 Best Dance Music Albums of 2013: CODE Picks
Dance music has typically been defined by the single, but in 2013, the electronic dance music album made a comeback with a vengeance. From chart-toppers to critical darlings to fan favorites, the longplayer is alive and well. Here are the 20 Best Albums (and a few outstanding EPs) as chosen by our Billboard CODE critics.
AlunaGeorge, "Bodymusic" [Vagrant]
AlunaGeorge’s “Body Music” is what happens when the house music revival goes leftfield pop. How can we ever thank the Lawrence brothers of Disclosure for introducing the world to the unique voice of Aluna Francis and the glitchy ebullient beats of George Reid? Be it the sass of “Attracting Flies” or the yearning of “Your Drums, Your Love,” this is a debut that makes good on the promise of the duo’s previous EPs. Packing just enough punch amid its sweetness, “Body Music” so effortlessly disregards the how-to manuals for both pop and dance music creating an original sound unto its own.
Big Black Delta, "Big Black Delta" [Masters of Bates]
One-man-synth-band Jonathan Bates exploded onto blogs last year with “IFUCKINGLOVEYOU,” a cacophony of layered choral voices, drums and Bates’ own shriek that sounded as predatory as its title. His self-titled debut full-length continues in that vein, opening with a scruffy bit of industrial ‘80s pop politely called “Put the Gun on the Floor.” Bates recalls David Gahan and even Kate Bush, master/slaving all over dystopian electronic sounds, but never without a melody.
TOKiMONSTA, "Half Shadows" [Ultra]
One of the many attributes of TOKiMONSTA’s debut album is how the producer chooses to reveal her influences. From ‘90s hip-hop to contemporary bass music, “Half Shadows” never shines a full light on the source material, making for a wholly unique sound that keeps a listener’s attention rapt. Fans of the DJ’s breakneck club sets might have been surprised by downtempo tracks like the emotional “Clean Slate” or the hypnotic “Let It Go” featuring MNDR. Yet in lieu of pop-appeal remains an album of sonic wonder and originality, peerless in a field of copycats.
Classixx, "Hanging Gardens" [Innovative Leisure]
Plenty of DJs and electronic artists call Los Angeles their homebase, but few represent the city’s sunny rhythms, laidback tempo and eclectic vibes as well as native Angelenos Classixx have on “Hanging Gardens.” More than an album about a time or place, songs like “All You’re Waiting For” and “Holding On” soar with a relaxed confidence that belongs at a daytime party in any city. It’s one thing to produce an album that embodies a sound, but the L.A. duo has also left enough space on “Hanging Gardens” to inspire a scene. Wouldn’t it be nice?
Colette, "When The Music’s Loud" [Candy Talk]
Colette’s first full-length on her own Candy Talk label is an appropriately delectable confection. The veteran house DJ and classically-trained singer steps out of the club and deploys some vocal effects on a collection that reflect the versatility of her sound and her penchant for pop hooks, telling the story of a life spent at night. “When The Music’s Loud” is not solely a dancefloor record, but from bouncy opener “Best Of Days” to the come-on of “We Feel So Hot” Colette has made an album for the pleasure seekers of EDM and deep house alike.
Empire of the Sun, "Ice on the Dune" [Astralwerks]
After walking on a dream, Australia’s EDM embodiment of a Priscilla Queen of the Desert show came “Alive” with an unexpected festival anthem. Part of that success is owed to the group’s appeal for EDM DJs like Calvin Harris, Zedd and Tommy Trash, who remixed the originals, and played them liberally. While “Ice On The Dune” has plenty of tracks ready for listening out-of-the-box like “Disarm” and “I’ll Be Around,” it’s tunes like “DNA” and “Celebrate” that truly get their day in the sun during Empire’s own elaborate stage show.
Gesaffelstein: Aleph [Bromance/EMI]
Dance, welcome your new dark lord. French DJ/producer Mike Levy, aka Gesaffelstein, makes beats that sound like Front 242 gone Detroit techno, or if Trent Reznor made one of those recent Nine Inch Nails instrumental albums back in his leaner, meaner “Pretty Hate Machine” days. In addition to the noises of human suffering and pipe-thwack kick-drum beat-downs, Levy’s debut full-length implies an almost refreshing nihilism that rejects the sunshine and light of EDM in a sonic language it still understands.
Kastle, "Kastle" [Symbols]
Referencing ‘90s R&B and 19th century American literature, the artist born Barrett Richards produced an impressive debut. Leaving the hard knock bass of Kastle DJ sets on the studio floor and embracing a durability of songwriting, the self-titled LP is connects the sonic dots of the last two decades of electronic dance music as an inversion of EDM. His choice of featured vocalists - Ayah Marrar, Austin Paul, JMSN - shouldn’t be overlooked either. With precision and vision, Kastle knows what he’s doing and shows it on this album.
Kaskade: Atmosphere [Ultra]
Kaskade’s own vocals on the title track leave little doubt that “Atmosphere” is Kaskade’s most personal album yet. In a year when EDM’s zenith has been festival-obsessed and big-room happy, one of America’s top EDM artists made an album for headphones, connecting to a time in his catalog before anthems became a mainstay of his live sets. That’s a risk that shouldn’t go unheralded. At times ethereal and yes, atmospheric, Kaskade shows his love of soft melodies and his skill at building a soundwave. “Atmosphere” cements his role as a producer and artist and not just a DJ.
Robert DeLong, "Just Movement" [Glassnote]
Performing an album of electronic dance music by yourself with live instruments is practically unheard of. Still, it’s more than the anomaly of Robert DeLong’s live shows that make his debut album a standout. Dancey, song-based, and percussive, “Just Movement” is accessible enough for EDM-allergic hipsters yet electronically advanced enough for DJ enthusiasts. His skill as a multi-instrumentalist makes him an outlier, but the sincerity of his songwriting - on “Change (How You Feel)” and the title track - and the daring of his production - on “Global Concepts” and “Religious Views” - make DeLong a vanguard of electronic music’s future.
Flux Pavilion, "Freeway EP" [Circus/Atlantic/Big Beat]
Flux, born Joshua Steele, released his debut EP “Blow The Roof” this January, but “Freeway,” which just dropped in November, put his uncanny skills with satisfying bass drops and hefty vocals on even better display. American-style dubstep is about maximal sonic indulgences, but Flux uses all that power for emotional impact too. Check “Mountains and Molehills” with UK folk-rock duo Turin Brakes, which conjures Radiohead with its plucked guitar and string-laden opening; “Gold Love” with singer Rosie Oddie, which allows her to properly rock out like she’s fronting a band; and the title track featuring Flux himself on vocals, an emo “Tron” trip into a hopeful, neon-rimmed future.
Banks, "London" [Harvest]
You could argue that Banks is not necessarily dance or electronic. But when she sings “I got this need for you” on the Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs-produced “Warm Water,” with a deft groove and smile on her lips, we anoint her for the church of house. “London” is a four-track EP, but 2013 also saw the release of four additional singles, helmed by the likes of SBTRKT and Burial cohorts Lil Silva and Jamie Woon, and buzzy producer Sohn (who is set to release his own debut on 4AD next year). With a gauzy voice and clear-eyed lyrics, she’s a beat-driven Amy Winehouse, Kristine W’s inner chanteuse, Ellie Goulding’s darker sister. And we can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.
Holy Ghost!, "Dynamics" [DFA]
Nobody expects much by way of an album from a synthpop band that builds its fanbase on the blog-house circuit. For most of Holy Ghost’s peers, the single and an occasional pop remix are enough to maintain a career. But on “Dynamics,” the Brooklyn-based electro duo’s sophomore album, Holy Ghost! has successfully picked up the torch once held by their label boss, James Murphy and his now-defunct LCD Soundsystem. Calling on their deep musical knowledge (lesser-known David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac albums; out-of-circulation ‘80s synthesizers), Holy Ghost! re-envisioned their own genre and built an album song-by-song. The result is not only enjoyable but enduring and appealing to audiences beyond traditional electronica.
Major Lazer, "Free the Universe" [Secretly Canadian]
If the second album from Diplo’s Jamaican project Major Lazer simply repeated “Get Free” 13 times, we’d still give it a slot on this list. That track, featuring the alternately wistful and incredulous vocals of Amber Coffman of Dirty Projectors, is a long-term keeper; a spacey dancehall jam that delicately builds into a freedom song. Apart from it, “Universe” offers a lot of cheap thrills - but when they’re this satisfying, why question it? There are no-fail party-starters like “Jah No Partial” with dubstep producer Flux Pavilion, one of 2013’s most dependable festival freakouts, and “Watch Out For This (Bumaye)” with its scintillating horns; overlooked Wynter Gordon vocal (and Shaggy guest feature) “Keep Cool”; and Bruno Mars getting a little scratch for simply speaking the phrase “Bubble Butt.” Diplo’s still crafty. But damn, he’s good.
Krewella, "Get Wet" [Black Butter/Big Beat]
As one of the few female-led acts in the EDM boys club, the pressure was on for Krewella to be all things to all people. Somehow, their debut LP parses out the goods to most interested parties without pandering to any. From the stadium EDM rock of “Live for the Night” to the lighters-in-the-air “Pass the Love Around,” the Chicago trio makes no bones about its pop ambitions, even if they feel free to slam gloriously into a hardstyle break now and then. “Get Wet” works because it is an album of, for and by EDM’s core audience. That it managed a Top 10 debut speaks to the fervor of the Krewlife fanbase and the viability of EDM’s broad scale crossover through material like this.
Rudimental, "Home" [Black Butter/Atlantic]
Into a grand UK tradition of street-inspired beats steps Rudimental, following acts like Basement Jaxx, and yes, The Streets. “Home” is stacked with cross-genre successes from the year’s best ensemble cast, consistent only in their heartiness and energy level. Emelie Sande turns in two tearjerkers (“More Than Anything,” “Free”), Angel Haze raps and sings on “Hell Can Freeze” (which Skream remixed into a killer disco-house groove).
True to its name, the album also serves as a gathering place for the other British artists feeding the current soul revival, like MNEK, the vocalist on Duke Dumont’s Grammy-nominated breakthrough “Need U (100%),” and Disclosure chanteuse Sinead Harnett.
Jon Hopkins, "Immunity" [Domino]
In a year when electronic music was characterized by symmetrical beats, pop vocals, and general loudness, Hopkins made some of the most noise with some of the least. Were it not so obviously meticulous, moments on British producer Jon Hopkins’ fourth album, “Immunity” might seem accidental. Beats drop almost irregularly in the final minutes of “Open Eye Signal,” for instance and ambient noise counters the lush synth on “Collider.”
At times recalling the work of Brian Eno and Matthew Herbert, Hopkins ignores demands for hooks or conventional dance music song structure. Instead, across the album’s eight tracks, the artist weaves a complex pastiche of soft techno that is both hypnotizing and challenging. In its electronic primacy, “Immunity” demands your attention and prompts repeat listens if only to figure out how Hopkins made it.
Avicii: True [PRMD/Universal]
It was becoming so fashionable to hate on Avicii. Those awkward Ralph Lauren ads. His breakthrough single as a punchline (“Bro, you gonna play ‘Levels?’”) That live band he brought onstage at Ultra Music Festival, clearing an audience of thousands. But then came “Wake Me Up!” with its carpe diem/YOLO lyrics and folksy-pop-twang courtesy singer Aloe Blacc. Dance fans might have balked at first, but radio programmers ran straight out the conference room and added it to their stations, smelling crossover too potentially epic to ignore: the youth and cool of EDM, plus the scale of country.
But “True” is more than just a novelty song. It’s the result of young Avicii, born Tim Bergling, sitting in real live co-writing sessions with real live performer/songwriters from different genres, among them icon of the year Nile Rodgers, bluegrass artist Dan Tyminski, and Judy Garland’s great granddaughter Audra Mae. Each song is special and small on its own, given festival-grade scope by Avicii’s already melodic instrumental production. Haters gon' hate, but “True” is at least four singles deep, and despite all the machinations behind it, an uplifting repeat listen.
Daft Punk, "Random Access Memories" [Columbia]
The duo that kickstarted the EDM movement might have sown the seeds of its destruction with "RAM," its first album in eight years, and undoubtedly its most ambitious. Sure, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter set a blueprint for larger-than-life electronic performances with their iconic pyramid show at 2007’s Coachella. But "RAM" pulled the rug out from under dance-music-as-spectacle, focusing instead on dance-music-as-music.
Announcing itself via future classic “Get Lucky” -- with Nile Rodgers’ trademark disco-guitar jangle and Pharrell cooing about his basic instincts -- the album challenged listeners with symphonic space jams, extended monologues by senior citizens (Paul Williams, Giorgio Moroder), and deep voyages into non-synthetic, totally live sounds. After a marketing campaign that included blitzes at EDM fests like Ultra, it wasn’t what anyone was expecting. But the robots’ refusal to compromise their grand vision immediately inspired other artists tired of safety. Expect an onslaught of high-concept, high-risk albums from DJ/producer types next year.
Disclosure, "Settle" [PMR/Island/Cherrytree]
It’s hard to believe brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence are barely old enough to get into a club, let alone make an album full of club-ready tunes with melodic hooks and beats that honor the legacy of classic ‘90s house. But “Settle,” the debut full-length from the London newbies is an album that defies logic. Between the crackle of the “Intro” to the sonorous soprano on “Help Me Lose My Mind” is an album full of housey wonder and would be from an artist of any age. Singles like “You & Me” and “White Noise” lured us in but it’s deep, bassy bangers like “Stimulation,” “Grab Her!” and the Jessie Ware-featuring “Confess To Me” that sealed the deal.
Sure, some tunes are stronger than others and Disclosure has pegged itself so squarely as a house revival act they might struggle when looking for where to go next. But should “Settle” be their swan song, they can wilt happily knowing that a new generation of dance music fans connected with a sound beyond “EDM,” igniting global interest in a once niche London scene, and reminding even the most cynical that there is endless possibility in new music.