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The Best Electronic Music of 2021

Fatima Al Qadiri, Danny Harle, and UNIIQU3 all land on NPR Music's best electronic music of 2021 list.
Photo Illustration by Renee Klahr/NPR; Getty Images
Fatima Al Qadiri, Danny Harle, and UNIIQU3 all land on NPR Music's best electronic music of 2021 list.

As the world began to open up in 2021, so did some of its dance floors and parties, and electronic artists arrived ready to map these spaces with sounds that pushed and challenged listeners to break free. The best electronic music of this year was often filled with heart-bursting passion, in the outright declarations of love for music-making in the work of Porter Robinson and MoMa Ready, and in the metallic, dizzying beauty of hyperpop's many rising stars. An A-list popstar turned to dance music for a remixed reinvention, and a veteran vinyl DJ dug in the crates to craft a joyous debut. From Jersey club to the U.K. underground, 2021's best electronic music looks like a complex melting pot of genre and history united by a fevered dedication to setting fire to the barriers and boundaries of what music can be. —Hazel Cills

Albums

Tammy Lakkis, Notice

The centerpiece of Lakkis' brief album was good enough to make two of our lists, but its entire runtime is noteworthy; tongue-in-cheek, vaguely paranoiac, always bright and novel. Lakkis' brilliance is not only in her mastery of the dance floor groove, but the winking personality she imprints on it like a language-free journal. —Andrew Flanagan

Danny L Harle, Harlecore

Throughout the worst of the pandemic, most of my social engagement was through "Zoom raves" — live streamed parties with each person dancing alone from the comfort of their own homes. Despite the inconvenience of having to turn your bedroom into a warehouse, it reminded me that, despite the circumstances, the power of electronic music will endure. And for those of us who live for the dance floor, Danny L Harle's debut full-length album Harlecore encapsulated the specific joy that can only come from sharing a laser-strewn space with a thousand sweaty bodies. Anchored by Harle's four different alter egos — DJ Danny, DJ Mayhem, DJ Ocean and MC Boing — the LP darts back and forth between electronic subgenres with a maximalist nostalgia, creating a primer for the world of millennial rave. —Reanna Cruz

Fatima Al Qadiri, Medieval Femme

Two years ago, Fatima Al Qadiri scored the Cannes Grand Prix-winning movie Atlantics — a Senegalese, slow-bubbling, gently horrifying ghost film — with an ice-cold electronic palette and a host of disturbing drones. This year, she's produced an album that seems to be possessed by the same phantom. Here her digital orchestra of lutes and pipes envelop bits of seventh-century Arab poetry in slow, serpentine emissions. Dread, lust, longing, all of it simmers patiently in this dark, ten song vat. At this point, it's Al Qadiri's high-concept hallmark to make disquieting pieces of art that mix grand psychological extremes alongside her muse in the Middle East, but as someone who is down with dangerously rich ideas and the concept of being pushed to emotional breakage, Medieval Femme does an excellent job at handing a listener the sort of delicious anxiety that makes life feel, temporarily, like good foreign cinema. —Mina Tavakoli

Eris Drew, Quivering In Time

Across her lengthy career as a vinyl DJ and rave evangelist, electronic producer Eris Drew has espoused her concept of "The Motherbeat," a testament to dance music's ability to heal. On her first full-length album, Quivering in Time, she harnesses that ability in full force for a collection of bouncy, exuberant dance music that blurs the borders of house and techno, rife with surprising samples of breaking plates and movie monologues. Recreating the loopy unpredictability of her DJ sets, Drew's debut delivers a mix of non-stop fun, with flashes of meditative beauty. —Hazel Cills [This review originally appeared in NPR Music's The 100 Best Albums of 2021]

Anunaku, 042

Anunaku, also known as TSVI, is an Italian-born composer and DJ who finds a further depth of sophistication in every new release within the baroque, overcast world he's sculpted for himself. It's all floor-appropriate, but the songs' cruxes are embracive, turned inward like a debate with the moon. That the communion is so easily and reliably found — about halfway through "Ninfea," two-thirds through "Luminosa," the entirety of "Spirale" — shows the strength of signal the producer has tapped into. —Andrew Flanagan

Doss, 4 New Hit Songs

Let's hear it for the all-killer, no-filler career. In a streaming environment when we can hear almost anything we want at any time, potency is at a premium, and Doss seems to realize that more so than most. She's released just 8 original tracks across two EPs during her seven-year recording career, and each and every one is a bop — and, going by the title to this year's EP, she knows it. 4 New Hit Songs mixes house, shoegaze and pitched-up vocals for a 15-minute burst of endorphins. --Otis Hart [This review originally appeared in NPR Music's 26 Favorite Albums Of 2021 So Far]

DJ Sabrina The Teenage DJ, The Makin' Magick II Album

Despite representing herself solely through 8-bit images of "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," London's DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ transcends gimmick in creating immersive, sample-laden house records that can make three hours feel like twenty minutes. On The Makin' Magick II Album, her songs flow into one another like a stream (or perhaps a lazy river) of consciousness — listening to just one track can be sacrilegious, but each song is like the sonic version of looking back to a treasured childhood memory. Throughout the record, indiscernible vocal samples build on top of each other (is that Celine Dion on "I'm Still High"?) cloaked in carefree nostalgia, and highlights like the 12-minute "Being Alone" feel as though your molly just hit in the garden of Eden. It's easy to lose yourself in DJ Sabrina; just relax and surrender to the evergreen magic. —Reanna Cruz

Pauline Anna Strom, Angel Tears in Sunlight

Pauline Anna Strom's Angel Tears in Sunlight was supposed to launch her return to music. The electronic musician emerged in the early 1980s with her spacey, New Age-inspired compositions, but stopped making new work due to financial constraints. After over 30 years of silence during which time her work experienced a newfound resurgence among younger artists, Strom made what would tragically become her last album: Angel Tears in Sunlight. Released posthumously this year, its lush, analog synth sound falls right in line with her earliest recordings which are clear precursors to the work of contemporary artists like Avalon Emerson and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. It beautifully immerses listeners in Strom's playful musical utopia. —Hazel Cills

Lady Gaga, Dawn Of Chromatica

2020's Chromatica was a quarantine spectacle, and for Lady Gaga a return to the stratospheric pop music that defined her first records. The Chromatica universe is a futuristic dystopia, founded on inclusivity and what Gaga calls "kindness punks," making it only fitting that a track-by-track remix album would look to a group of artists that aren't afraid to disrupt the system. Under executive producer BloodPop's curation, Dawn Of Chromatica enlists over 20 artists to take the bona-fide earworms of the original Chromatica and put them under the lens of what's bubbling in the underground: distorted house, shiny hyperpop, hardstyle, and even "Dragula"-esque industrial all make appearances on more than one track. Packed to the brim with transcendent potential, Dawn speaks to two separate generations of artists, creating a bridge between a boundary-pushing pop icon and the like-minded folks who follow in her footsteps. —Reanna Cruz

Parris, Soaked In Indigo Moonlight

Dwayne Parris-Robinson is a hyphenate in more ways than one. The London electronic producer runs his own record label, works at another, DJs at England's most adventurous clubs, and makes his own genre-defiant music under his first surname Parris. After spending the 2010s scattering 12-inch singles throughout London's underground, Parris finally released his debut LP in November, Soaked In Indigo Moonlight, and it takes that aversion to categorization one step further by adding pop music to the mix. "Skater's World," featuring the sugary vocals of Eden Samara, will catch the ear of even the most casual listeners — and then leave them totally befuddled as the record proceeds through pointillist dub, polyrhythmic ambient and malfunctioning drum and bass. Soaked In Indigo Moonlight is an aesthete's treat and recommended to anyone who wants to hear something they've never heard before. —Otis Hart


Songs

Porter Robinson, "Musician"

There's a touching backstory to this euphoric song by former EDM wunderkind-turned-hyperpop auteur Porter Robinson about falling back in love with making bangers after a festival-sized bout of self-doubt. While teenage stardom isn't exactly the most relatable background, his irrational obsession with music — and the joy he feels producing it — will strike a chord with anyone who can't stop, won't stop. "This is why we do it, for the feeling," Robinson belts out, his voice pitched up and poignant. And what better way to express that exuberance than that sample of Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's "It Takes Two"? —Otis Hart [This review originally appeared in NPR Music's The 100 Best Songs of 2021]

MoMA Ready, "We Love Music"

One pillar of the colosseum that is Haus of Altr, a Brooklyn-based label and DJ confederation, MoMA Ready has been releasing and playing his house and DnB-honoring cuts since 2017. "We Love Music" is exactly what it claims to be; a deep house distillation of New York club energy — the whole album is good for that — and a broader bow to the only thing that makes any sense these nights. —Andrew Flanagan

SOPHIE, "UNISIL"

The year in electronic music started on a mournful note with the loss of SOPHIE in January. Throughout her short-lived career, the producer and artist found herself straddling the line between abrasive industrial sounds and shiny bubblegum pop music, often blending the two together on a single track. Her final song came two days before her death in the form of "UNISIL," a pounding, galvanic B-side from her earlier 2015 compilation, PRODUCT. As the last release from a once-in-a-lifetime talent, the track stands as a reminder of the artist and potential art we lost. —Reanna Cruz [This review originally appeared in NPR Music's The 100 Best Songs of 2021]

Nice Girl, "The Coming"

"Oddball," like "outsider" or "leftfield," is one of those uninspired, catch-all titles that's been foisted onto art that seems like it's been dropped randomly onto Earth. Nice Girl — the nom de plume of Ruby Kerkhofs — is both relatively unknown and extremely fluent in a mess of distinct electronic styles, which makes her an easy target for any of the banal labels above. She can be campy, Goa trancey, even full-on New Age, but she's deft in mixing unlikely forces in a way that feels welcome, if alien. Like the title of the track suggests, the song's thick with the moos and coos of longing, but she's draped them like a painted odalisque over a rug of skanking dub. Regardless of whatever you want to call her, "The Coming" signals Kerkhofs' arrival. —Mina Tavakoli

UNIIQU3, "Microdosing"

As the reigning queen of Jersey Club music, UNIIQU3 has spent the last several years churning out bubbly club bangers, and "Microdosing" is a fast and furious addition to her excellent catalogue. "Stop microdosing my love," UNIIQU3 sings in the chorus over a frenetic beat, sweetening a demand to commit with the promise of a never-ending high, before spitting in the verses: "I ain't something you can reject." Cuffing season has arrived. —Hazel Cills [This review originally appeared in NPR Music's The 100 Best Songs of 2021]

Suuns, "Witness Protection"

This band has always had a Mandelbrotian relationship to rhythm, keeping time in coiled spikes across a deep, warm core. Above it usually has hung a sort of pixelated and charming, if opaque, wonder at the world in general. Not so these days — the title seems to be their recommendation for each and every one of us, over a string of increasingly desperate rhythmic pleas for action. —Andrew Flanagan

underscores, 8485, "Your favorite sidekick"

When asked about the state of hyperpop, PC Music's Hyd once summed it up effectively by likening it to an "exploding container." The movement keeps growing, amplified by both its popularity and its possibility — there are no genre lines to keep inside, no rulebook to follow. A perfect encapsulation of the lack of boundaries came from underscores this year with their album fishmonger. The record is equally digicore as it is emo, drawing on both Soundcloud rap and whatever you could classify the "Lorem" Spotify playlist as, resulting in a delightful blend of emotional sincerity and distorted chaos. On the record's catchiest track "Your favorite sidekick," underscores enlists fellow glitchcore artist 8485 for a sweet duet about realizing you're growing closer to someone; their words are always in your mouth, and killing time feels like the most exciting thing in the world. "It's the new wave of the future!" a voice proclaims. Believe them. —Reanna Cruz

Petal Supply, "1"

Most dance tracks that extend past the 10-minute mark attempt to establish a hypnotic state, someplace you can lose all concept of time. And then there's "1" by rising Canadian hyperpop producer Petal Supply. The neon paean to immaterial infatuation unfolds like an epic prog-rock journey through the metasphere. That's largely due to the guests in parentheses above — each remixed Petal Supply's original demo for "1," but instead of taking the results and compiling them on an EP, she sequenced them to create a Voltron unlike anything I've ever heard before. If only its runtime was 11:11. —Otis Hart [This review originally appeared in NPR Music's The 100 Best Songs of 2021]

Tammy Lakkis, "Notice"

There's a mesmerizing pull to Tammy Lakkis' "Notice," its stripped-down house shape-shifting by the second. "When the clock tick-tocked before, I didn't notice," Lakkis sings, her breathy vocals a siren call at its center. Inspired by the dance floors of Detroit, "Notice" is the sound of a mind carried away by a beat, blurring the edges of time enough to let the bliss rush in. — Hazel Cills

Sofia Kourtesis, "La Perla"

Berlin-based electronic producer Sofia Kourtesis created "La Perla" in memory of her late father, inspired by the trips to the ocean they would take together when she would visit her native Peru. With a heart-beat evoking drum as its strong center, "La Perla" unfolds delicately outward in glittering layers of warm synths, soft percussion and hazy, mournful vocals, enveloping you in sound like a salty ocean wave cresting the shore. —Hazel Cills [This review originally appeared in NPR Music's The 100 Best Songs of 2021]

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