IDM — or intelligent dance music — is the kind of genre name you roll your eyes at. Not many will claim kinship with it, and those that do often camp out on its fringes. Some of the best IDM albums and labels were never considered a part of it by anyone outside their immediate scene in the first place, which is why it’s so difficult to pin down. IDM is music defined more by what it isn’t than what it is — an electronic sub-genre that shies away from conventional song structures and traditionalist dance floor uniformity in favor of taut structures and sharp edges.
Born from the grassroots by way of an amorphous internet collective, IDM was the sole inheritor of a post-rave electronic music culture that strove for avant-garde legitimacy without succumbing to the lures of traditional musical forms. IDM has historically been focused on forward-thinking electronic music that eschews focus on 4/4 beats for more complicated rhythms and melodies. In their heyday, IDM artists like Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Boards of Canada were able to bring together pop melodies with styles such as jazz-influenced breakbeat, techno, trance and ambient music and often worked within frameworks established by dance music producers – even if their aim was to subvert them.
Nearly two decades after the term was first coined, we’re still trying to figure it out. And I think we still like that about IDM: its lack of easy definition allows for a multiplicity of experience and indulgence. We can listen to its sounds as gorgeous electronic tapestries meant mainly to be heard in an appreciative way. We can enjoy them as polyrhythmic math puzzles meant for repeat listening and we can marvel at them as minimalist sound sculptures.
IDM, improbably enough, is still a force to reckon with two decades after its emergence. Artists still use it as an inspiration and point of departure, and the genres it spawned continue to nourish new music. Recent years have seen a renewed embrace of avant-garde electronic music. You only have to scratch the surface with producers like Burial, Actress and Oneohtrix Point Never to see it’s clear we still live in an era defined by IDM.
To help you get familiar with the new breed of IDM artists emerging right now, EC has made a list of the best IDM albums of the 2020s (so far). Many flashes of brilliance and enduring masterpieces have emerged during the last few years, but many of these releases have not gotten their proper due.
Sleep D & Ad Lib Collective – Flashed Glass
An initially intriguing pairing of new age virtuoso musicians, Sleep D and Adlib Collective created one of the most intriguing (and best) IDM albums of the 2020s to date. Recorded in a country under lockdown, the album was finished by both parties working remotely. The end result is a brilliant example of what can happen when electronic and acoustic instrumentation collide, a sonic meander through interlocking tracks that are fully fleshed out and yet sparse at their core. Ambient, classical and low-slung dub is a quality combination on its own, but it’s a formula that has been tested again and again over the last few decades. With Flashed Glass, Sleep D and Adlib Collective transcend these elements into something totally new.
Proc Fiskal – Siren Spine Sysex
In recent years, Edinburgh producer Joe Power has been making a steady name for himself in the music world, producing experimental electronic music under the moniker Proc Fiskal. His music, built up of fragments caught in digital drift and colliding rhythms, adds found sound, acoustic instruments, and free-associating samples to the mix. With his 2021 release, Siren Spine Sysex, it only takes about thirty seconds for the sense of disorientation and restlessness to punch through. It’s hard to describe the feeling of hearing this album; a lot of it is the editing, which feels like a series of loops and fragments continually shattering, Everything is at odds with each other, even as everything comes together. The free-modulating rhythms, high impact bass and resplendent subtleties of the sampled sounds make this release a truly unique piece of music and one of the best IDM albums of the past few years.
Facta – Blush
Blush, the 2021 album from UK producer Facta, is the perfect album for fans of pretty and ethereal IDM music. Facta’s work with haunting, sparse textures always feels warm and inviting, folding the listener in its blanket of gentle depth. Blush is a record so full of fascinating elements that sound like each track is composed to carry out a bigger idea. There’s a kind of spaciousness to the music, an openness that lets you breathe easily. It distinguishes itself by creating an atmosphere that is particularly warm and pleasant — one which doesn’t make you feel lost in a digital dreamworld, but rather find some small reprieve from it. It’s getting tougher to find music that sticks out these days but this record definitely leaves its impression.
Andras – Joyful
With a sound that resists easy classification, Australian producer Andras’ 2020 release Joyful is a beguiling pastiche of jovial IDM sounds. The sound design is complex, and the melodies are intricately designed to be fun and accessible, but more importantly, Andras’ work has personality. Happiness is evidently one of the key themes here: Joyful is unequivocally happy music. This isn’t just another record teeming with faceless synth lines and beats. With warm synth melodies and blissful washes of wobbling bass tones, Joyful is full of refined textures that form a cohesive whole. Joyful is a breath of fresh air in a scene that tends to take itself too seriously. And it’s also one of the best IDM albums of the 2020s.
K-Lone – Cape Cira
British producer K-Lone’s 2020 album Cape Cira is a contemplative and teeming record that uses familiar tools to create something fresh and vibrant. The eight track album features forward thinking instrumental experimentation with a flow and dynamic that reaches further than your average IDM album. It’s a record of meditative soundscapes, using simple rhythms in unusual ways. The overall effect ends up feeling really complex and nuanced—careful percussion, sparkling high tones, and undercurrents of faded xylophone-like noises combine to create new, unusual sounds. Its peaks and valleys are not in the usual places; it’s a subtle storytelling piece that rewards patient listening.
Anthony Naples – Chameleon
A vast collection of tunes, Chameleon from NYC-based DJ/producer Anthony Naples is a joyful journey through furthering synthesizer sounds, ambient guitar riffs, and bedroom-made orchestrations. A kaleidoscope-like expanse of shifting colors, dub techno textures, and ambient tones, the album feels like a relaxed journey through blurred and ever-shifting sonic landscapes. Never sitting in one place for very long, it quickly abandons any conventional song structures in favor of a continuously morphing flow that keeps you on your toes and makes for one of the most dynamic (and best) IDM albums released in the past few years.
μ-Ziq & Mrs. Jynx – Secret Garden
Secret Garden pairs μ-Ziq, one of the fathers of IDM, with rising producer Mrs. Jynx for the ultimate synthesis of IDM minds. The album is a rollicking listen, marrying dark slinky dub beats with soothing synth stylings into beat-driven collages of airy IDM, dub atmospherics, and ambient textures. The album is packed full of great tracks, all kinds of ravishing synth sounds and pretty melodies. The tracks build around various compositional structures – from a nice rolling kick drum pattern to almost free form live jam sessions of electronic noise – all skillfully knitted together by the musicianship on display here.
Tristan Arp – Sculpturegardening
Subtle but lush, Tristan Arp’s music is appealingly delicate and pristine. The songs on Sculpturegardening are carefully cultivated and arranged, like a beautiful garden bursting with life. The title of the album is essentially a metaphor for Arp’s music—he has a keen and direct interest in biology and botany, and some of his tracks are named after plants or places related to nature. Overall, the tone of Sculpturegardening is dreamy and mellow, a beautiful exercise in minimalism. Arp doesn’t clutter up his compositions with too many sounds. Instead, he lets the pieces breathe and let subtle nuances glide across your ears. The result is a sublime album that blossoms with an air of serenity and ease.
Colleen – The Tunnel and the Clearing
Cecille Schott, a Paris-based musician and producer who records under the name Colleen, has released eight full-length albums since 2005. The Tunnel and the Clearing, her 2021 effort, is one of the best IDM albums released in years, a record that’s both minimalist and inviting, intimate and spacious, melancholy and lush. The Tunnel and the Clearing is music to listen to in dark places. There’s a slow, gloopy density to all of its songs that makes them feel like they’re pressing down upon you. Phosphorescent layers of organs and synths sit atop each other with little regard for their own precedence. Even when songs hit brief moments of melody, it never really comes into focus until deep into the song by which point you’ve already been pulled along by what comes next.
John Tejada – Year Of The Living Dead
John Tejada is one of the most overlooked DJs and producers of the past two decades for one simple reason: it’s impossible to stick him in a box. In a career spanning 25 years, he’s dipped his toes into any number of electronic sub-genres, from techno to drum & bass to downtempo and back again more than once. As a result, his discography unfurls like an unusually disparate CV. Tejada’s Year Of The Living Dead is his most chilled-out records in quite some time, full of lushness and dubby electronic moments, an IDM-techno record where its creator has somehow stripped away everything but his innate ability to create music that makes blood pump to the skull and feet tap under the table.