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First Floor's Favorite Releases of 2022
a.k.a. No more year-end lists after this one, I promise.
Hello again. As promised in yesterday’s rundown of my favorite tracks of 2022, this is a special extra edition of the newsletter. (The regular Thursday mailout—the one with electronic music news, links to various articles, new release announcements, track recommendations from the past week, etc.—will still be published tomorrow at the usual time.)
Today’s business, however, is much more simple: providing a round-up of my favorite electronic music releases from the past 12 months. I’ll spare everyone the usual hand-wringing about year-end listmaking and why I still take part in the practice—there was some of that in yesterday’s newsletter—and just get to the task at hand.
2022 was a strange year (although it kind of seems like they all are at this point), and while electronic music’s loudest conversations tended to focus on the influx of commercial pop sounds into supposedly “underground” dance music, the genre as a whole had much more to offer, particularly for those willing to invest more than the span of a single track with artists and their releases. In a music culture increasingly dominated by the single-centric focus of streaming and social media, the continued utility of the album (and other long-form formats)—especially for new artists looking to break through and establish themselves—is worth questioning, but for the time being, it’s these releases that still generate the most dialogue (and also receive the most attention from the press).
On a more esoteric level, long-form releases also tend to offer the most rewarding listening experiences, in the same way that a quality film offers deeper pleasures than a funny social media clip. Especially for those of us whose engagement with electronic music isn’t limited to Spotify, TikTok and club / festival settings, there’s a distinct pleasure in being able to leisurely inhabit an artist’s soundworld for a little while, gradually taking in the nuances without worrying that the DJ (or a platform algorithm) is going to change the record after a few minutes, completely resetting the experience.
As with yesterday’s list, what I’ve assembled here is wholly subjective; this is not meant to be a comprehensive look at the year in electronic music. These selections are 100% my own, and are only definitive in the sense that they are the releases I personally enjoyed the most during the past 12 months. They also have not been officially ranked, though I have put them into three separate categories, and within those categories, they have been listed in an order that roughly correlates to my enthusiasm (i.e. my absolute favorites come first).
Anyways, let’s take a look at the list. Electronic music may have its problems and peculiarities—taking stock of them is obviously a significant part of what I do with First Floor—but one thing the genre doesn’t suffer from is a lack of quality music.
Note: You can click the track titles to hear each song individually, or you can also just head over to this convenient Buy Music Club list to find them all in one place.
THE BIG THREE
First Floor readers are already used to seeing “The Big Three” category each week in the newsletter, and its application here is similar. Simply put, these are the three albums that resonated with me the most in 2022.
A manic album in which elements of happy hardcore, stadium rap, emotive R&B, swaggering EDM and kaleidoscopic bass contortions all live side by side, Cry Sugar is a fluorescent funhouse mirror, its comically distorted images reflecting both the grotesqueries of American pop culture and the persistent sense of existential dread that comes with life in Los Angeles. The world is burning, but everyone’s too busy watching the carnival freaks and checking their social media to do anything about it.
Can a guitar-driven post-hardcore album be made like a techno record? Moin proves not only that it can, but that the end product can be just as compelling as a traditional band record. (Side note: those interested in more details of the group’s methodology should check their First Floor interview from a couple of months ago.) Powered by distorted riffs, the superhuman drumming of Valentina Magaletti and provocative vocal clips plucked from the online ether, Paste has enough world-weary angst to keep even the most ardent Dischord and Touch & Go fanboys from wistfully thumbing through their old records for a few days.
Considering the heaps of praise thrown at The Range’s previous albums, it’s a bit strange that Mercury largely flew under the radar this year. It’s possible that the Vermont artist’s mild-mannered persona simply isn’t shiny enough to capture the attention of Generation TikTok, but his songwriting chops continue to be top-notch, melding elements of electronic music, hip-hop, soul and R&B into remarkably potent little pop packages. Stuffed with big emotions (and bigger hooks, many of them lifted from performances he found on YouTube), the LP is responsible for several of 2022’s most imminently hummable tunes.
THE AMBIENT(ISH) STUFF
This category is fairly self-explanatory, but given that it also contains more than half of my selections, it’s perhaps the best representation of what my daily listening habits actually looked like in 2022. Simply put, I listened to a whole lot of ambient (and ambient-adjacent) music. Maybe it’s a sign that I’m getting older—I certainly don’t spend as much time in the club as I once did—or maybe it’s a reflection of the lack of innovation that colors many of today’s more dance-oriented electronic offerings, but whatever the reason, I frequently found myself drawn to ethereal expanses and static-strewn soundscapes. Not everything here is marked by ambient music’s usual zen-like calm—although there’s undeniably a lot of that—but even when they dip into darkness, there’s a lot of beauty, wonder and intrigue to be found in the releases below.
Constructed using a litany of small-scale sound recordings—some of them more than a decade old—Spectral is a billowing epic, its soaring tones alternating between moments of quasi-devotional grandeur, ethereal introspection and whirling, synth-fueled drama.
These two LPs were born out of very different circumstances—the former was an extended meditation on loss and grief following the death of loved ones, while songs on the latter were initially written for a COVID-era livestream, but they’re both arrestingly beautiful. Whether she’s serving up plush synth explorations or reverb-soaked dream pop, Patricia Wolf is a master of the slow burn.
Xiuxiuejar features passages of both pristine beauty and chaotic tumult, but even during its most angelic moments, the album retains a haunted aesthetic, its eerie theremin melodies and jagged cello rumblings (not to mention its gloopy bass drones) making clear that no one should get too comfortable.
Holotropica is the Sofie Birch album that’s been mentioned on the most year-end lists, and while it is quite good, Languoria is the superior offering, as the presence of Antonina Nowacka’s otherworldly vocals notably enhances the gauzy, fairytale-esque atmosphere created by Birch’s fluttering textures and plinking melodies.
Heavy on guitar and heavier on the reverb, Octopus perhaps stretches the definition of ambient, but its moody post-grunge laments capably drink from the same trough as beloved artists like Grouper and Hope Sandoval.
Having previously filled her catalog with contemplative batches of textural ambient, Ulla injected Foam with blasts of effervescent color, running glitchy shards of PC Music-style pop weirdness through a psychedelic IDM (think Boards of Canada) filter.
An elegantly meditative LP, Image Language exudes calm, its looming (albeit assuming) layers of soft reverb adding an ethereal glow to the album’s warbling melodies and ASMR-style vocal fragments.
Consisting of two 15-minute compositions, everything perfect is already here is Rousay’s most refined effort to date, and one in which the gentle bustle of her signature field recordings frequently cedes the spotlight to tear-jerking string passages and exquisite flurries of softly plucked harp.
Following up an ambient classic like For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) couldn’t have been easy, but Huerco S. responded to the challenge with an album that’s still wonderfully zoned-out, but also cribs a few notes from IDM, hip-hop and footwork, setting its washy textures and new-age-adjacent melodies against subtly kinetic rhythms.
Inspired by Warp’s seminal Artificial Intelligence compilation series, Symmetry Systems is a relatively bare-bones release (albeit a lush one), its elegantly rippling melodies a testament to the enduring hypnotic allure of free-floating synth sounds.
A monument to the power of editing, No. 5 strips away all excess, allowing its gossamer tones, quiet drones, patient piano and groaning strings to luxuriate (and reverberate) in all the white space.
More avant pop than ambient, Ideas of Space is imbued with a kind of fantastical grandeur, its twirling melodies and generally dreamy aesthetic enhanced by Tess Roby’s multitracked (and at times Enya-reminiscent) vocal acrobatics.
Delicate is the best word to describe a journey…, a lullaby-like album in which Hinako Omoki’s cooing voice warmly drifts alongside twinkling melodies, nature sounds, pillow-soft drones and the occasional splash of color.
Woozy melodies, languid tones, pitter-pat percussion and a litany of nature sounds; Only Love From Now On is Carmen Villain’s most purely ambient (and electronic) album to date, and it’s also her best.
Step aside modular geeks. With Metamorphose, JakoJako has jumped to the front of the synthesis line, populating the album with trippy sonic explorations, propulsive not-quite-techno compositions, ambient trance indulgences and the occasional bout of ambient reflection.
Subdued Caribbean rhythms meet Balearic luxury on Club Sentimientos Vol. 2, a record whose sumptuous grooves and intoxicating chill more are than potent enough to blot out questions like, “Was DJ Python joking when he described his music as deep reggaeton?”
THE BEST OF THE REST
This is another category name that regular First Floor readers will recognize from the weekly newsletter, and though I suppose it could also be called something like “Everything Else” or “The Leftovers,” going with “Best of the Rest” feels a bit more laudatory. Regardless of the category name, I love all these releases, and mainly lumped them together because they’re not ambient. Of course “not ambient” covers a whole lot of musical ground, but while the releases themselves are all quite different from one another, things like drums and rhythm are key components of everything listed below. There’s still not a lot in the way of club-ready material here, but for interested in something less sedate, this isn’t a bad place to look.
After more than a decade together as Karenn, Blawan and Pariah have built up quite the techno pedigree, but their Persher project isn’t music for the dancefloor. It’s something for circle pits and grim basement squats, a frequently relentless—but also, as the duo explained in their recent First Floor interview, rather playful—strain of heavy music that incorporates elements of hardcore and metal without feeling like surface-level pastiche. (And for what it’s worth, Blawan does have a seriously intense feral growl.)
Ultra Truth was rolled out over the course of six months, and also happens to be Daniel Avery’s most star-studded album to date—guests include Sherelle, Kelly Lee Owens, HAAi and Jonnine Standish, amongst others. Yet it still feels like the LP kind of got overlooked this year. That’s strange, and not just because of Avery’s general notoriety; the album is also quite possibly the best thing he’s ever done, an expansive effort that weaves together elements of rave, techno, ambient and shoegaze into a confidently towering (and remarkably cohesive) document of the UK artist’s musical vision.
Ground Groove almost feels like a beat tape, albeit one that incorporates jagged guitar squall, trip-hop (and hip-hop) beats, noisy asides and splintered fragments of Iranian folk, classical, and pop music. In other words, there’s nothing else that sounds quite like it.
Both an archival venture and a loving tribute to the legacy of UK pirate radio, the 0860 album ticks a lot of different boxes, but it’s primarily a high-quality tour through classic jungle sounds, its percussive rattle always bathed in the persistent crackle of a covert on-air broadcast.
Shawn Reynaldo is a freelance writer, editor, presenter and project manager. Find him on LinkedIn and Twitter, or you can just drop him an email to get in touch about projects, collaborations or potential work opportunities.