How the electronic album has been rewritten by five of this year's most adventurous records.
2012 has been strong for the album. People have not only released good ones, but they’ve also explored different things one can do with this traditional form. This has happened not only in pop and more experimental music, but also in dance, where the album can still be treated with trepidation. I:Cube’s ‘M Megamix’, Nina Kraviz’s ‘Nina Kraviz’, Jam City’s ‘Classical Curves’, Actress’ ‘R.I.P.’ and Laurel Halo’s ‘Quarantine’ are five examples that offer up some new vision of where the album stands now, and could stand.
A quick note – they are not releases trying to physically change the album itself. Though in 2012, Nicolas Jaar has released music on a steel cube and Terre Thaemlitz’s just yesterday made a 32-hour album, these five records have all worked within the confines of an 40-odd minute set of music released on a format your uncle would feasibly buy. All are vindications of the album as a form rather than rejections of it. They are no less experimental or thrilling for that – if anything, they are more so.
The clue is in the title with I:Cube’s album. This is basically a mix, a selection of the producer’s own material woven into a fist-pumping whole, each track rolling tightly into the next. I wouldn’t say “M” Megamix’ is a perfect record, but it is significant in how it meets the alleged problem of the dance music album head on. There are plenty of albums that have come out of dance music that work incredibly well, but this often happens as a result of the album doing something that works outside of the context of club music, of the producer trying to broaden their sounds so that they are no longer just centered around making a crowd move. That cliché of ‘surprisingly, you can listen to it on headphones and while sitting at home’ still crops up in writings about club-oriented producers who have ventured into album territory.
I:Cube’s album is not like that. These are songs unambiguously built with clubs in mind, songs that twist and slink with all the energy of a late-night dance-floor. It’s an album made with an understanding that only comes from someone with his level of DJing know-how. I:Cube provides a very simple answer to the question of how to reshape an album as a dance music producer whose primary concern is still the club. There have been examples of producers turning a mix into something that is essentially an artist album, for example Ricardo Villalobos’ ‘Fabric 36’, but I:Cube has gone the other way around. He’s turned the album, a format that has never been that important or a necessary stepping-stone in a dance music producer’s career, into something that is true to what he does.
Nina Kraviz has said in interviews before that she makes “songs”, and doesn’t refer to her compositions as “tracks”, showing she has always viewed her music as something more personal than functional beats. Her album is one that captures a dance floor from within the mind of someone in a crowd. Her songs are filled with clubbing signifiers – the crisp snap of a Dance Mania 12” on Ghetto Kraviz, the down-tempo Detroit swing of Turn On The Radio – but it also has a stillness about it. It’s a series of shadowy wisps, her brittle and delicate beats as ecstatic as vulnerable as strong and as contradictory as anyone can feel over the course of a night out.
In other areas an artist’s career is always leading up to making an album, a complete statement of intent and a demonstration of what they are adding to music. Dance music though is not primarily for the head. It is physical body music, a competitive and fast-paced whirl of 12”s, selectively passed around unreleased tracks, all with the intention of making a crowd throw their hands in the air. The likes of Pearson Sound and Tensnake have never had to make an album in order to become wildly successful. Nina Kraviz is a producer ingrained in this world, with 12”s on labels like REKIDS, Underground Quality and BPitch Control to her name. This year she released her debut self-titled album, something she didn’t need to do to establish herself but even so the album format had its allure. She uses the idea of the album as a personal statement, but makes her personal statement one that centers on the club and the internal experience of being there. ‘Nina Kraviz’ flips body music to make it music of the mind.
Jam City uses a format that is outside of club music in order to explore the lengths club music can be driven to. He’s stretched clubbing by re-contextualizing it, taking its most immediate and straight to the gut elements, and drawing those out over the course of a long-player. In doing this he’s also re-imagined the album, putting together a record from the frenetic world of rare stripped down grime white labels, the whip-crack beats of old juke records, brazenly digital sounds. He takes the hard-edges and muscular beats of the floor onto the album, a format they’re usually left out of. It’s no fuss music, as all the best club music is. Direct, overflowing with energy and feverish creativity.
But it’s also the best of what an album can be. On ‘Classical Curves’ he wanted to create a new world – something which encompasses not only the music, but the artwork and his entire visual aesthetic. To create something new, ironically, the most traditional of forms was best. Making an album still seems to hold an allure for young musicians making the tricky jump to consideration as artist over producer. Which is exciting, because it means people will continue to push what it can be, while simultaneously celebrating what it is.
Actress’ album is not about songs, it is about the entire experience. This makes it a peculiarly unwieldy record for one that sounds so modern. It is in this way closest in idea, though far away in sound, to the I:Cube album. Both have tracks that don’t work on their own with the same power as they do as a whole. You don’t just dip into Actress’ world, you commit to the whole. It’s record that requires total immersion, much like the immersion a good DJ or a strong live act can induce. ‘R.I.P.’ is dense, filled with thoughts on life, death, beauty and history. The density of ‘R.I.P’, similarly to Hype Williams’ mesmeric ‘One Nation’ last year, challenges how we consume music now. It is the exact opposite of a disposable MP3 posted on soundcloud, a youtube rip, or a song you read about on a blog. It’s not for any nostalgic or particular attachment to the form that one would say this is a record made to be listened to on wax. ‘R.I.P.’ sounds like it is spilling out and re-making everything around it, a set of music that is so without boundaries it seems restrictive to think of it as just a collection of songs strung together as an album.
Laurel Halo is a musician who, rather than try and re-mould the album, has embraced its possibilities. ‘Quarantine’ is traditional in many ways. Twelve songs – and they really are songs, not lean ‘tracks’ or rough ‘sketches’ for the most part – that unfold with a peculiar grace. They pull pop music into previously unheard shapes, but do so in an open way. You could play Thaw on its own, or in the context of the album, and it would be equally touching. Halo’s album is thrilling because it does what all great pop albums do – it supplies the listener with a new slant on life, joy and beauty (something followed through in the album artwork too). Because the sound of it is so radical on the ears, it seems more radical that it presents itself in a traditional album model.
Like Jam City’s album, Laurel Halo’s demonstrates why the form endures. For all the changes in the way we consume and discover music in the last few years, there’s still a certain magic about a full-length album that we can’t quite shake. There’s a fullness to it that a series of free downloads, a mixtape, a series of 12”s, or any of the other ways music is released now, still can’t touch.