As music writers all across the world scurry to listen to as many of the year's releases as possible before constructing "best of" lists, one album I can't help but listen to repeatedly (over others I haven't even listened to) is Andy Stott's November release Luxury Problems. Stott and the Manchester-based Modern Love Records label, home to ambient artists like Demdike Stare, Move D, and Deepchord, have certainly done their part to challenge the current landscape of drug-fueled, fist-pump-worthy, festival-dominating popular EDM like Avicii, Deadmau5, and Skrillex.
Stott himself started out making heavier techno but moved to the more atmospheric dub minimalism of the slow-churning bass music he has perfected over the past two years. Luxury Problems follows the natural progression of his previous two excellent EPs, Passed Me By and We Stay Together. Yet, Luxury Problems offers something new in the form of haunting vocals from Stott's former piano teacher, Alison Skidmore. The first words we hear on the album's opening track, "Numb", are "touch," softly repeated over and over by Skidmore. "Touch" is exactly what Luxury Problems does to your ear; it announces its presence but doesn't come on too forward.
The rest of the album, much like Scott's career arc, is filled with tension: between beat and ambient music and between the relative newness of techno to the classicality of Skidmore's pseudo-operatic vocals on tracks like "Lost and Found". The black and white album art, showing a woman perhaps in the middle of a back flip in an old one-piece swimsuit, certainly announces that while the music may be new, it achieves its newness in the form of what has come before, or as a reaction to newfound maximalist tendencies.
Ultimately, the tension in Stott's music yields diversity and means that whether in headphones or in the club, Stott's music ominously pacifies. While tracks like "Numb" and "Lost and Found" may sound foreboding, the third track, "Sleepless", over the course of six minutes, builds into a danceable, increasingly loud but sparse bass beat. There's a further contrast between the seriousness of Stott's music and the self-deprecating, more emotive nature of the man himself. Discussing his songwriting process with Pitchfork, Stott apparently audibly freaks out (so much so that his girlfriend wonders what's wrong) whenever he creates something he likes. The audience acts the same way during his performance of "Stitch House," as the video shows.
Beneath popular EDM is what I like to call contemporary electronic music's middle ground: music that's not quite underground yet not quite in the mainstream. Maximalist hip-hop and pop instrumental producers like Flying Lotus, TNGHT (the DJ duo of Hudson Mohawke and Lunice) and Rustie have been recognized by mainstream contemporary hip-hop artists, whether in the form of Kendrick Lamar freestyling over TNGHT's "Higher Ground" on Gilles Peterson's BBC 6 Radio show or AlunaGeorge singing over Rustie's "After Light." Yet, late 2012 albums like Flying Lotus' Until the Quiet Comes and Stott's Luxury Problems have combated this current middle ground trend. While FlyLo delves into down-tempo electronic jazz and Stott minimalism and slow bass music (electronic music in general is anything but one cohesive genre), both delivered two of the best electronic releases of the year. These are producers who started out making noisier, denser electronic music and have certainly learned how to Quiet.