Ghost in the 404: The Best Dance and Electronic Music of 2020

Sam Ribakoff ranks the best full-lengths from the electronic music realm found in the dumpster fire of 2020.
By    December 18, 2020
Photo by Kisshomaru Shimamura

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Sam Ribakoff is the Phantom of the Esoteric Dance Night.

25. Oneohtrix Point Never – Magic Oneohtrix Point Never

Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is the record where Daniel Lopatin throws open the doors to his catalogue and welcomes both new converts and weary long time disciples. Just heard Lopatin’s production on The Weeknd’s “Repeat After Me” and want more of that sticky electro psycho-pop? Try “No Nightmares,” which apparently has Abel himself stashed somewhere in the chorus of voices in the track. Just watched Uncut Gems and want more of that synthy noir ambiance? Try “Wave Idea” on this record. For you diehard Oneohtrix heads, pick your favorite album of his, because there’s a track replicating the style of your favorite record of his on this record. But it’s not a greatest hits compilation, it feels more like a waylaying station. A chance for fans to catch up, and a chance for Lopatin to expand on the weirdo, vocader drenched, synth based, invented retro-nostalgic pop music sound like “No Nightmares” and “Lost But Never Alone,” before he continues along a trail to another, even more out there sound.

24. Diamond Ortiz – Classy Chassis

Out of the full roster of the continuing renaissance of DJs and producers in L.A. reworking and freaking funk music in all it’s mutant forms for the 21st century, Diamond Ortiz is probably the producer who makes music as close to the source material as possible, and sometimes, that’s all you need. Just listen to tracks like “Play for Keeps,” it sounds like it jumped straight off a Zapp record. And there’s no way “Bad Attitude,” wasn’t a Prince demo on a hard drive at Paisley Park. With his trusty and ubiquitous talkbox, Ortiz charts a pan-funk adventure from g-funk bangers to robot vocoder sweet soul ballads that can only be fully appreciated at a roller disco. But this isn’t a museum piece, a portrait of the sounds of the past, this is living, breathing, funk for the people.

23. AshTreJinkins – Robot Blood

Another year, another amazing AshTreJinkins record. The absolute grittiest, nastiest, dirtiest techno-funk around. AshTre has been finetweaking his mastery of creating the murkiest, most textured, soundscapes around for years, and on this record, those skills just keep improving. Just sit back with headphones and merge with the shoegaze-like blur of the background in “Nanobot Repair,” or the menacing ambiance of “Do Not Let Them Dream,” or the 3D sound sculpture funk of “Speaking.”

22. Nailah Hunter – Spells

Nailah Hunter’s Spells is the best album this year to use a harp, cricket noises, and ambient soundscapes. Across this short EP, Hunter introduces gently swaying ambient synths [with a little hint of R&B chord movements if you tune in close enough] that are like little self contained levels in a video game, with her quiet and contemplative plucks from her harp acting like a narrator to these little worlds. But just as soon as you enter into them and take a good look around, the tracks over, and you’re on to the next level, so enjoy it while it lasts.

21. Jarren – Mina EP

Jarren’s Mina EP is one of those albums that you never get around to finishing because you keep replaying the first track ad infinitum. “Silk,” the album’s opener, with it’s somewhere between cheesy and hard, slinky, basey, synth lead and funky Italy meets Long Beach funk-house chord changes, is definitely the album’s standout track, but once you get past it, the funk only gets deeper. There’s a little something for everyone here – roller skating around Venice beach at sunset jams, cruising on a summer’s night jams, even business funk jams like the album’s closer “Offering Bounce.” With all these funky offerings, there’s no excuse not to rock with this album.

20. Kush Jones – Strictly 4 My CDJZ 9/Relief 3/Relief 4

This year was a big, prolific, year for New York’s Kush Jones. He released a ton of music, all of it really good, but these are my three favorites. On all of these records he continued to make solid footwork/juke tracks, while pushing his sound off into new directions, like Jersey club like sounds on Relief 4, or the jazzy footwork/juke on Relief 3, or the beautifully video gamey footwork/juke piano melody on “Get the Keyz” on Strictly 4 My CDJZ 9, which leads straight into the frenetic drum and bass of “Reaktionary,” which itself leads into the off-kilter clave funk of “C Diddy.” Hardly anybody else in the dance music world is as willing and able to experiment with sounds as Kush Jones is, or as able to pull them off so seamlessly and make it sound like so much fun.

19. Florian T M Zeisig – Coatcheck

Do you miss hanging out at bars, restaurants, music venues, and clubs, but not like dealing with Hollywood yahoos or drunks bros? Do you miss getting to talk to and knowing bartenders, waiters, security, and janitors at those places? Do you also like German ambient dub-techno by any chance? Because if so, this is your album of the year. Meant to be like an audio sound art sculpture that reflects the experience of working at a club, German producer Florian T M Zeisig made a beautifully enveloping oceanic, crackling, oozey, dubby, ambient soundscape that you gotta put on headphones for to get the full “crying in the sonically rendered empty club of my mind” vibe.

18. Damar Davis – Q Tape/Bronze/Dance Season Vol.3

L.A.’s Damar Davis’s music will have you asking “how the hell did Davis get the thickest, cleanest, bass sound that sounds like it was formed in the damn liquid magma core of Earth’s crust?” Somewhere on the spectrum of electro-house music, with a distinctive Southland G-funk bounce, over three albums released this year Davis has made some of the most solid, chrome plated, straightforward dance music made this year.

17. Suzanne Ciani – A Sonic Womb: Live Buchla Performance at Lapsus

The godmother and reigning queen of the Buchla modular synth came back this year to teach us all, again, how to stop worrying and love the machine. Since the 70’s, Ciani has been making music with a Buchla modular synth, an instrument that unlike most other synths, doesn’t have a keyboard. Instead to play it you twist knobs and move patch cords around to manipulate an electronic signal. You can’t really recite or recreate music on it, instead each time you turn it on, the player basically improvises with the instrument on the fly. Cool shit. Anyways, Ciani is the master at improvising with this instrument. On this live recording the music goes from tranquil washes of blissful ambiance, to acid house burbling paranoia, to musique concrete type train track sounds, back to calming ocean sounds, and Ciani makes it all not only make sense, but rock.

16. Beau Wanzer – Kitchen Clock EP

Another addition to the absolutely filthy, toxic sludge nasty, electro that the essential L.A. Club Resource label puts out. Coming out of Chicago, Beau Wanzer meshes perfectly with that industrial district, grimy, sound that the dudes at L.A. Club Resource specialize in. You will give yourself tinnitus listening to this record just in time to drift into the creeping 80’s slasher movie synth work of “Wilma’s Crate,” and you will love it.

15. Lorraine James – Bangers and Mash

Lorraine James’ two other records this year, HMM and the Nothing EP, were good, but neither of them were as weird or wonderful as this messy, stuttering, completely British collection of remixes. James brings her patented time defying techno-grime sound here to tracks like a remix of UK drill rapper Ivorian Doll’s “Rumors,” where it sounds like she’s rapidly pressing fast forward and rewind on the original track at the same damn time while adding the wildest 808 bass hits until the track just gives in. But maybe the best track is the closer, James’ spastic bass drum and angelic synth chord hymnal remix of Pop Smoke’s “Welcome to the Party.”

14. Bored Lord – Phantom Renegade

Bored Lord got arrested back in August during a solidarity protest in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, then she got out in time to drop a flurry of all out ecstatic rave records on her Bandcamp page this year. Combing the classic rave mixes of UK garage, hardcore house, acid house, and jungle/drum and bass with a undying love for 2000’s pop music and nu-metal, all of them are good, but Phantom Renegade is the one where all of those elements seem to mend perfectly together like on the Britney Spears sampling “Too High.”

13. DJ Earl – Vault Vol. 3: Since Winter CHI in 08

Footwork/juke music is one of the only genres left where producers still sample with abandon, and it’s wonderful. There’s nothing better than listening to a footwork/juke track and hearing a producer chop the hell out of a sample. Along with being one of the best DJs in the world, DJ Earl of Chicago’s Teklife crew is also one of the best producers and samplers out there. This compilation of unreleased tracks is just 15 tracks full of beautifully chopped, time melding samples under wonderfully hard footwork/juke rhythms.

12. Ana Roxanne – Because of a Flower

In such a world historic fucked up year, there was probably no more gentle and reassuring a song put out this year than Ana Roxane’s “Camille.” Under what sounds like the cold analogue precision of an early Rhythm Box drum machine and the warm pluck of an electric piano and the occasional interruption of a couple talking in French, Roxane sings and coos her heart out about… something, I don’t know, but it sounds beautiful. Whatever she’s saying, it’s hard to hear it underneath a warm blanket of lo-fi haze that coats this whole record. Using electric pianos, ambient synths, splashing water sound effects, and her own voice, Roxanne weaves a whole album of fireplace warm ambient music. Like a San Marcos blanket for your soul.

11. Dominowe – Away from Home

The nastiest, rawest, gqom record of the year that somehow also includes an acoustic guitar. Gqom, the Durban, South African mutant spawn of South African house music, techno, Miami Bass, and South African kwaito music that sounds like slowed, footwork/juke music, has been making its way across the world now for a couple of years, only recently really coming to the attention of U.S. audiences when Megan Whyte and stole gqom producer DJ Lag’s beat for a terrible, terrible song. Now that some sort of spotlight has landed on gqom, now would be a good time to get acquainted with the sound, and Dominowe and his brand of rough, thunderous, insistent gqom. Plus, buying this album helps Dominowe rebuild his home studio after it was burglarized, so buy this album if you like the music.

10. Green-House – Six Songs for Invisible Gardens

Inspired by Mort Garson, Irv Teibel, Hiroshi Yoshimura, and Haruomi Hosono’s nature loving ambient soundscapes, L.A.’s Green-House makes new age ambient music to nurture your plants to, and for them to nurture you right back. There’s everything you want here in an ambient album, bird chirping sounds and gently flowing water with pillow soft synths rising out of the background like the voice of mother Earth herself. It’s ambient dance music for your plants.

9. Actress – Karma and Desire

In Actress’ music, early Detroit techno sounds melt into gloomy post-industrial and post-rave.  Humanity tries to make peace with and circumvent domineering technology and surveillance. Karma and Desire is a continuation of Actress’ previous records that act as like a soundtrack to that dystopian present. This time around there are a lot more human voices added to the mix. From cryptic readings by Zsela, to ghostly vocalizations from Sampha. It’s a beautiful record, filled with not only the satisfying textural ambiance you expect from an Actress record, but also beautiful, haunting, piano melodies. Oh, and probably the best techno track put out this year, “Loose.”

8. Vatogato – DGM. Vol. 2_Vatogato & Cakedog

Both Knxwledge and Cakedog are two of L.A.’s best producers who’ve individually put out some great music this year, but when they link up as Vatogato to make thunderously crashing and wildly careening footwork/juke music, it’s glorious. On this short EP Vatogato let the tom drums ricochet, the hi hats crash and the sirens blare, as they take glossy r&b jams and chop them into psychedelic footwork oblivion. There’s surf guitars here, soulful organs, and even a track that can only be described as quiet storm footwork. It’s some of the wildest footwork/juke music coming out today.

7. KMRU – Drawing Water

The rising prominence of Nairobi’s KMRU might have been one of this year’s few bright spots. Releasing tons of music on his Bandcamp page of slow, thoughtful, long form ambient sound collages and ambient meditations, the one that was most overlooked, and I think his best one, was Drawing Water. With a subtle background of white noise and recordings of kids playing in the distance, KMRU builds these ambient landscape scenes where buoyant and bouncy plucks of an old synth sounds like skipping stones on a serene foggy mountain lake.

6. Speaker Music – Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry

The molotov cocktail of the dance music world this year, Speaker Music’s Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry is a full 80-minutes of thundering 909 drums punctuated with news clips and poetry, police scanner chatter, and ominous synthesizer textures that builds into a crescendo of screaming saxophones and wailing sirens. It’s a soundtrack to the righteous anger and hope for justice of this summer that’s as inspired by Black political and social philosophy and ideas, as it is by Underground Resistance’s militant techno, and furious free jazz drummers like Milford Graves. It’s the kind of radical dance music that The Last Poets or The Watts Prophets could fuck with.

5. Omar S – You Want/Simply

As the vocal sample says across every track on this record, “you know you, and you know me, we’re brothers. You want the best. I don’t care what you got, you want the best!”, and the ever prolific Omar S consistently gives us the best lo-fi house and electro-funk music around. There’s bold gospel-house tracks on here, dirty lo-fi funk, soulful Detroit techno, big room bangers, acid house, and the best house vocal performance of the year on the monotone soul of “Second Life.” Oh, and he also came out with an album called Simply that has a large sticker on it that says “Fuck Resident Advisor” this year too. He really is the best. Detroit forever.

4. Elysia Crampton Chuquimia – Orocorara 2010

According to the Bandcamp page for this album, this is a concept album about “intergenerational trauma, fugitives of Christian violence in a twilight called Puruma, returning to Mama Cocha, the sea that theorists call Nowhere,” in other words, it’s another great album from Elysia Crampton Chuquimia. In her past work, rollicking Andean, huayno, and cumbia rhythms and noisy sound effects, keyboards, and samples have usually been the main driving forces, on Oraocorara 2010 there are tracks like that, but most of the tracks on here are much more acoustic, much more somber, much more haunting, with repeating piano and ambient synth motifs, and acoustic percussion instruments like shakers, like om the beautiful “Homeless (Q’ara)” and the operatic “Morning Star-Red Glare-Sequoia Bridge.” Here too, there are a lot more human voices, either singing, like the serene “Grove” with Embaci or the terrifying “Crucifixion” with Shannon Funchess, or reading cryptic poetry, like the multiple tracks with the always deathly serious sounding Jeremy Rojas. Like most of her records, Oraocorara 2010 is an epic poem worth of ideas. Confounding, but always interesting and rewarding.

3. Space Afrika – hybtwibt?

Like Eduardo Galeano and John Dos Passos, Bristol, U.K.’s Space Afrika not only want to document the times, but how it feels, and how we got here through collage. Using clips from TV news segments, interviews, ambiance from protests, video game music, and chopped up musical motifs, Space Afrika creates an all encompassing ambient collage of the trans-Atlantic Black experience and this summer’s world wide uprisings against racism and police violence. It’s part history, part journalism, part essay, part documentary, part sound art. There’s moments of grief here, violence, resilience, and joy. On this album Space Afrika asks you the listener “have you been through what I’ve been through?” and if not, can you begin to understand and empathize and fight alongside me?

2. DJ Diaki – Balani Fou

Although it’s the second track on this album, I suggest starting this album on “But Show Diaki Dj6.” Once you press play you immediately are bombarded with an insistent alarm like blaring synth accompanied by what sounds like every drum in the world thundering away at every rhythm in the world at the same damn time. This is the experience of listening to DJ Diaki’s Balani Fou. DJ Diaki is a Malian DJ who, according to the notes accompanying the Bandcamp page for this album, at the insistence of rural dancers, sped up Malian balani music into these hyper speed rhythms filled with crashing drum machines and cymbals that just fall over each other to create this chaotic wall of trance inducing percussion. Shoutout to Nyege Nyege Tapes for again letting the world know that the best dance music being put out now is coming from all over Africa.

1. Sam Gendel – Satin Doll

Is Sam Gendel’s Satin Doll jazz? Is it electronic music? Does it matter at all? On the one hand, most of the album is saxophone centered cover songs of old jazz standards like “Stardust” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” On the other hand, Sam Gendel’s saxophone is run through so many effects that you might not even recognize it as a sax for a minute. The drums on this record are electronic, wobbly, and really off kilter, not playing anything close to something that could be identified as jazz. But it does sound a lot like the ambient spacey jazz that Jon Hassell’s been making for decades now, and a little bit like the out there disjointed jazz funk electronic stuff that Theo Parrish has been putting out for decades as well, and there’s definitely a little bit of the free jazz meets hip hop frolick of Madlib’s Yesterday New Quintet project on here as well. Well whatever you want to call it, there’s no other project, except Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake, that I turned to more this year. For me, there’s some sort of solace, and anger, and a special kind of pessimistic optimism for the future, for peace, and justice, in the weirdo disjointed ambient electronic jazz funk of this record.

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