Each passing year seems to bring more hand-wringing over the so-called "EDM bubble." Whether or not the shiny, mainstream, pop-dance sphere is set to burst, electronic music, as it always does, continues to rave on. This year's best albums prove the ostensible underground's in tip-top health, with dance fans ready for a darker and headier bent, from challenging young artists like Nicolas Jaar and Arca to weirdo vets like Autechre and Aphex Twin. On the other end of the spectrum, mainstream standouts like Kygo, Flume and Eric Prydz continued to make stellar album statements in an environment of singles and Soundclouds. In between, slinky R&B, downtempo and outré techno helped out another bumper crop of the year's best.
Without Mark Ernestus, techno might have never taken root on the continent, as his Berlin shop Hard Wax served as a beacon for electronic music and musicians of all calibers since the fall of the Wall. But it's his work with Basic Channel and Rhythm & Sound that made him a legend, establishing the template for the nerve-pummeling minimal techno that powers the city's superclubs to this day. Ernestus stepped away from the techno capital and Europe entirely for this project, traveling to Africa and emerging with a clutch of Senegalese mbalax drummers. With Ndagga Rhythm Force, Ernestus and crew concoct a minimal percussive sound every bit as mesmerizing and concussive as EDM. A. Beta
Two dance-music architects form one monumental brain and go all-in for deep dub techno of the most mantric and mesmerizing kind. The label, Tresor, counts as a stamp of techno at its most serious and austere, and the cast is formidable: Juan Atkins, from techno's origin story in early-1980s Detroit, and Moritz Von Oswald, part of the Berlin-based sound and movement surrounding his formative act Basic Channel. Together they commune so fully as to make their individual contributions hard to identify, but that bodes well for a throbbing and sensuous sound that warmly pulses, pulses and pulses some more. A. Battaglia
Before this, his debut studio full-length, Haitian-Canadian producer Kaytranada, racked up a near-encyclopedic discography of remixes and production credits. Officially and unofficially, he gave everyone from Talib Kweli to Erykah Badu to Janet Jackson a heavy dose of futurism, with vocals hinging on glossy, bubbling tracks drawing from Brit sounds like two-step and broken beat. It's no surprise, then, that 99.9% bangs with club- and car-ready numbers from start to finish, with nuanced, interesting production never clouding guests' melodies or singing prowess. Over 13 tracks, Kaytranada visits electro boogaloo ("Breakdance Lesson No. 1") and spliced-up, grown-and-sexy house ("Lite Spots"). But he also takes trips into narcotized, shimmering hip-hop, like the Vic Mensa-featuring "Drive Me Crazy," as well as panty-dropping, sizzling R&B – just see "Got It Good," featuring Craig David. The vibe is polished, cosmopolitan: funky at night over champagne and uplifting over morning coffee. A.C.
Jamaica's Equiknoxx turn more than 30 years of dancehall music upside down while losing very little of its visceral, grinding appeal. The production crew plumb traditional low-end and wind-ready rhythms with a decidedly post-modern ear for broken-sounding samples and errant noises (cawing birds, slurping turntable fuzz, synthwave pillows). It's dancehall painted by Picasso — the rhythms are familiar, but the snares splat ("Clunk") or splut like wet cardboard ("I Really Want to Write on Her Purple Wall"); melody lines are more like marimba patterns (Porridge Should Be Brown Not Green") or clanking cans ("Clink"). Part the Bug, part J Dilla, part Flying Lotus, part King Tubby, Bird Sound Power is a dark, demented journey that still grooves from top to bottom. C.W.
In a few years, Jason Ross went from hearing British trance stalwarts Above and Beyond play his music out to manning his own mix under their label. Within minutes, the sixth Anujabeats Worldwide collection lets loose into trance euphoria that never lets up. Worldwide 06 begins with a lighthearted opening half – Above and Beyond's remix of their OceanLab project "Another Chance" stands out – then forges down a more aggressive path. When Ross' 2016 single "Me Tonight" arrives in the waning moments, it provides one last chance to reach for the sky. D.T.
When Swedish House Mafia said "Don't You Worry Child," Kygo was the kid who wasn't listening. Cloud Nine, the 25-year-old DJ's first LP, is melancholic, forlorn and strangely confident. In terms of genre, it's "tropical house" only because it isn't anything else, plus it has those modulating pan-flute synths that Bieber nabbed for "What Do You Mean?" These are the kind of songs that follow crashes both chemical and financial. When EDM was ascending, chord progressions pushed higher and higher while vocalists tried to seize a night that was just beginning. A few years later, the perspective is flipped, and the sound is muted. "We used to have it all, but now's our curtain call," Parson James sings on Cloud Nine's first vocal track. "At least we stole the show." In 2016, Kygo's gift was to make the end of an era sound like the beginning of a new one. N.M.
Andy Stott has worked as a master craftsman of brooding, foreboding electronic music that's gritty with textures and heavy on atmosphere. With Too Many Voices, though, he opened up more and seemed to breathe less dank and fetid air. The guiding principle continues to count as future music with all the curiosity, reticence and confusion that true considerations of the future deserve. But there's a briskness and even buoyancy in Stott's suggestive rhythms (and the otherworldly vocals by Alison Skidmore) that lend Too Many Voices a sense of visceral presence and pleasure new to the enterprise. A. Battaglia
Over the last five years, the Príncipe Discos label has become synonymous with the jagged, indescribable club music coming out of Lisbon. Mambos Levis D'Outro Mundo, Príncipe's first compilation, collates 27 tracks, all slightly out of joint, that would rattle any club on Earth. But these beats are just as compelling heard through headphones – you could spend a long morning-after trying to discern the logic that holds together every interjected noise and seemingly random percussion glitch. Niagara's "Alexandrino," for instance, sounds like Depeche Mode and Cajmere trapped in an elevator, and it would stun the same in 2016 Lisbon as it would in 1992 Chicago or, presumably, on a spaceship to Mars in 2045. Which isn't to say these sounds are timeless, just don't expect to ever live in a time when they don't sound fresh. N.M.
Since his monster 2004 radio hit "Call On Me," Swedish producer Eric Prydz has veered away from those vocal-heavy, relentlessly upbeat, uptempo pop-house stylings, and instead has ventured into much headier and atmospheric territory. As his original material has delved into the nuanced worlds of progressive house (with touches of freshened-up trance) he's released it only shrewdly, with only one official single coming in as many calendar years. So this studio effort, only his second, feels aptly named. With 19 tracks unrolling for almost two hours, Prydz traverses gauzy, peak-hour anthems ("Generate"), Eighties-inflected slink ("Black Dyce," "Moody Mondays") and even some comedown-cool ("Sunset at Café Mambo"). The stunning final title track throws it all the way back to the days before trance became a bad word, full of synth washes and driving snares. At its best, Opus approaches the seamless, cinematic quality of a proper DJ set, seriously pulling nostalgia strings while providing contemporary big rooms, once more, with some feeling. A.C.
Jessy Lanza does her own dance on Oh No, drifting back and forth between vulnerability and impregnability, surrender and attack, sometimes in the course of a single song. The two poles are "It Means I Love You," a chipmunked bearing-all that ends with an impossibly naturalistic Jersey club breakdown; and "VV Violence," an industrial airing of grievances that captures the self-conscious brattiness of the PC Music crew sans any of their otiose artifice. None of Lanza's kindness is taken for weakness: At both ends, she sounds self-assured, even in the face of a partner who's always silent. N.M.
By his earliest 20s, wunderkind Flume had already racked up hip points globally for his textured, glitchy forays through the worlds of minor-key experimental sounds, from hip-hop to downtempo and beyond. Sure, his self-titled 2012 album went double platinum in his native Australia, but Skin put him over the top internationally – and rightfully so. Here's where he managed to marry hipster-cool future bass and electro-pop with bombastic, radio-worthy hooks. "Say It," featuring Tove Lo, appeared with an earworm chorus and melody ready for soundtracks and lobbies. Meanwhile "Never Be Like You," featuring Kai, proved inescapable radio fare, whose stuttering snares and mournful vocals helped it retain cred. But when he's not playing with guests – others include Little Dragon, AlunaGeorge and Raekwon – Flume's unafraid to go back to his roots, still producing dark, hiccupping instrumental fare full of synth stabs, echoing vocal snippets and even IDM-ish beats. A.C.
With Demon City, Elysia Crampton follows her sprawling 2015 breakout American Drift with a masterwork that is both tighter and looser. Rhythms simmer and throb, percussion sounds bounce all around, craggy synths and samples of demonic grunts and laughter form their own sort of post-lingual language on the fly. Crampton rolls with fellow art-minded colleagues like Juliana Huxtable and DJ Total Freedom, but she's crafted a sound-world so specific and fully formed – laced with allusions to electro, crunk and seductive Latin-American grooves – that she deserves a place in a pantheon all her own. A. Battaglia
The most haunted and haunting aspects of ambient electronic music come in for eerie and ethereal treatment by Demdike Stare. But beats do too – and increasingly so as the Manchester-bred duo set their sinister sights on the club. Taking off from the antic and rhythmically driven series of Testpressing singles, Wonderland hovers above remnants of jungle, techno and dub, with the ominous atmosphere of horror-movie soundtracks never far from the horizon. It's not all brooding, though – there's enough inspiration and invention in nine new tracks to evince a giddy devotion to dance music in its most developed forms. A. Battaglia
This record label conversation between Rome's Nan Kolè and South Africa's Lerato Phiri brings the first commercially available full-length of gqom, the stark, moody genre engulfing the streets of Durban, South Africa and forward-thinking clubs the world over. Made for both tiny cell-phone speakers and taxi cabs alike, gqom is heavy on bass and cavernous reverb, combining the dankness of British grime, the polyrhythmic fury of the pop-electronica hybrid kwaito and the merciless boom of the post-dubstep universe. Both versions – 12 songs on two LPs, or 16 downloads ready for your phone – are skeletal in structure but rich in rhythm, including two tracks from breakout star Citizen Boy: the woodpeckering "Tribute to DSB" and the oppressive and seasick "Ghetto Mafia." The collection peaks with Cruel Boyz' "Umeqo Emagqomini (Dub Mix)," whose constantly surprising, ever-evolving talking drum-esque lead percolates with digital plink. C.W.
After about a decade appearing seemingly finished with music altogether, Aphex Twin returned in 2014 with the career high-water mark Syro and unlocking a vault of unreleased tracks to Soundcloud. Cementing that Richard D. James wasn't simply lost to the pastures of Cornwall, this comparatively brief half-hour EP, shows no dip in his post-comeback music. The jittery pulses that pushed Syro are replaced here with diffuse calmness, as "CheetahT2 [Ld Spectrum]" and "Cirklon 1" offer relaxed, near-ambient grooves. A couple tracks breeze by as 30-second blurbs, but even those flashes show James in command of a form he helped originate decades ago. D.T.
With a series of five simultaneously released LPs that totaled more than four hours of extreme sound, British duo Autechre moved not just beyond the parameters of club and home-listening fare, but to base camp at the Mt. Everest of abstract electronic music. Over their 25 years of circuit-mashing, Sean Booth and Rob Brown have always pushed the parameters of analog gear (and later their Max-DSP patches) to render a sound that suggests the post-human. Already at the vanguard, the Elseq series went a step beyond, formidable and exhilarating in equal measure: half-hour aural amoebas made of broken video game consoles, blissed-out high frequencies, whiplash electro as rendered by heptapods and more. Binge on the entire set and hear a scrapheap future Black Mirror can only hint at. A. Beta
The fifth album from one of minimal techno's most critically acclaimed artists holds the familiar patterns of his earlier successes, songs slowly unfurling and relishing in the languid pace of running times that often pass 10 minutes. The warm, comparatively shorter comforts of "Soft Stream" and "Raise the Dead" allows them to become backing music to life's quieter moments. The Field's full-lengths never balloon beyond a handful of songs and the same remains true here, but the small details and nooks gives them endless reasons to revisit. D.T.
This 25-minute gasp is one of the more nightmarish dispatches from Arca, the pixel-pusher blurring the lines between club music, noise, musique concrète and body-horror foley work. The producer who brought his frayed A.D.D. edges to Kanye West, Björk and Frank Ocean explodes with screams, moans, bursts of alien techno, scraping, pounding, actual fireworks and a Mica Levi cameo drowned in a puddle of stomp. The sound-sculptor says he "very painstakingly spend[s] time embroidering such a degree of detail and variations," and naturally these are tiny bursts, mostly under two minutes, where tiny details ultimately bleed into a large-scale fright. C.W.
After 20 years spent forgetting about more disco, funk and house joints than you'll ever know, Detroit legend Moodymann dropped his first-ever officially licensed mix. And as is his wont, Moody delivered the goods on his terms. Eschewing the type of woozy house music he made his name on almost entirely, he instead takes us on a detour through a 21st century R&B not beholden to the Knowles sisters, revealing a smoky parallel world featuring the likes of Yaw, Little Dragon and D.C. funktronica crew Fort Knox Five. But don't mistake the mix for just a party soundtrack. Moodymann stayed politically minded amid the year's turmoil, at one point dropping out the beat and having a voice warn: "There's no room for ideals in this mechanical place." A. Beta
Chilean-American producer Nicolas Jaar crafts music more measured and deliberate than almost any of his peers, his dance singles and online mixes almost as famous for their crawling BPM and slowly unfurling dynamics as the music contained within. For his second proper album, Jaar tackles the issues of his two homes, Chile in the shadow of General Pinochet's junta and America in the dystopian present. He addresses these at his own speed, roving through clattering bells, sinuous reggaeton, sinister Suicide throbs, sweet-sounding doo-wop and even echoes of his childhood dialogues with his own father. By turns bracing, inviting, innocent and brutal, Jaar sums up both the past and present moment thusly: "We fucked up." A. Beta