For the past few years, I've threatened to do a year-end list running down the best albums, reissues, and singles, one that usually remains in my head rather than on a screen. Frankly, there's a part of me that feels like I have a lot less music to share at the of 2016, though I doubt that is true. Part of the issue undoubtedly stems from the fact that the frenzied sharing of primarily rap and club tracks that had been igniting my in and outbox for the past few years seemed to slow down to a trickle as I was generally preoccupied with long-players new and old this year. Regardless, I'm always on the hunt for bangers in all shapes and sizes and these are nineteen bangers that have kept me genuinely excited about music, no matter what my email may say.
Asusu - "Sendak" - As this track was the inspiration for a bloated piece on the legacy of Livity Sound within the context of Bristolian electronic music, I'll get right to it. While the electro tear-out "Hallucinator" seemed to gain some traction with DJs and critics, for me it was the B-side of "Sendak" that reminded me of everything I love about Bristolian bass music: mutant intros, weird-ass percussive sounds, and drops that make you reconsider what a drop even is. Having already significantly altered the DNA of club music a few years back with the futuristic trunk rattler "Velez," Asusu managed to push his winning formula to the breaking point with the manic-yet-controlled drums and bass weight simmering to a boil on his latest release for Peverelist's world-conquring Livity Sound imprint. Life-changing music this is.
Avalon Emerson - "The Frontier" - Damn, I did not realize Avalon Emerson had spent the year sowing so much goodwill amongst music critics as she's been on seemingly every hipster dance music list I've seen so far, often with the seven-minute desert epic "The Frontier" in hand. Featuring a perfectly hallucinogenic video whose neon desert glow perfectly matches the song's "go west, young person!" vibe, this single was released on Whities, the Young Turks sublabel that is quickly going from a monthly treat for the heads to L.I.E.S.-circa-2012-levels in terms of breaking new and exciting artists on the regs. Although "2000 Species of Cacti" is the perfect B-side, this track is the undeniable champ for me with its tom-heavy percussion giving way to one of the year's most memorable, goosebump-causing melodies. I can't say she's "one-to-watch" for next year because it seems like everyone already is. Good job everybody!
Bézier - "Cosmos" (Honey Soundsystem) - I love Italo cosmic house bangers. They're gaudy, superficial, and fun af. For some reason I keep thinking about how "Qwazars" by Mr. Fingers is probably a better song than this, and it's one I enjoy quite a bit. But having personally spent the majority of my Larry Heard-related listening focused on that ace Fingers Inc. reissue from last year, "Cosmos" has become my personal musical space pod of choice to transport me into the new year. And while it might not get as good fuel mileage, its campy drama and sequined arpeggiations filled a unique void for me this year that not even repeated listenings to the Legowelt Classics album could. So kudos to you, Mr. Bézier. May we one day share a dance on Jupiter.
DJ Katapila - As much as I wanted to dig this release, I was left a bit wanting by DJ Katapila's debut Trotro album for Awesome Tapes from Africa. For a label that so often leaves me stunned, this release largely did not, save for the top of disc two when the syncopated polyrhythms give way to both a mutation and mutilation of what we would consider acid, but here it is something far more alien. I'll save the "Acid Trax" comparisons for an actual ethnomusicologist, but I won't deny that I'm thinking about them.
DJ Marfox - "Funk Em Kuduro" - OK, so if we're talking about tracks released this year, we'd technically have to go with just about anything from Marfox's stupendous Chapa Quenta release on Principé. But this year we got a look both forward and back as Boomkat put out a much-needed vinyl release of NON Worldwide's 2015 Marfox CD compilation Revolução (2005 - 2008). The comp's first half is its most interesting as it shows Marfox synthesizing various other genres as he slowly makes his way to his more stripped-down, sonically devastating template upon which a whole sound has been built. This is part of what makes "Funk Em Kuduro" such a tasty side dish, its MIDI strummed guitar and birdcall-like female vocal sample floating over a Miami bass-like beat before Marfox drops in the more syncopated rhythms for which he is known, switching back and forth between the styles until the song simply exhausts itself.
Legowelt - "Alien Abduction" - Even if he didn't release a pile of top-notch ambient, electro, techno/house, and imaginary soundtracks seemingly every month, each year poses the challenge: What was the best Danny Wolfers-produced song? As we all (should) know, he's the type of producer who probably makes at least one banger a week that would launch an otherwise unknown producer if they weren't all coming from the same Dutchman. While I've seen the excellent (and wonderfully-titled) "Sampling Winter" popping up on some lists, I'm going with the one that got me through February of this year. Bowie's death still felt like it was yesterday and this uncharacteristically-populist-yet-for-the-heads release (it was a split 12" with Dos Attack) felt like it fell out of the sky, stardust not far behind. And for reasons unknown, we're treated to Wolfers trying his hand at French filter house, mangling the bitrate to achieve an even-more astral quality than the ace synth lead, soaring on to New Albion.
Four Tet - Evening Side (Oneohtrix Point Never Edit) - Anyone who knows me personally knows that I consider Daniel Lopatin to be pretty much the most overrated electronic producer of my generation, someone who's great at taking other people's ideas and making them palatable to a larger audience. Four Tet, on the other hand, has been keeping my eattention since first hearing his group Fridge in an Ann Arbor record store in 2001 and this year he released his best album in years. The two-trackes Morning/Evening featured the Villalobos-channeling "Morning" track that took a chintzy vocal sample and somehow made it work as a twenty-minute, labyrinthine dance track. What kept that album off this list was the interesting, but exhausting "Evening" side that seemed to channel Four Tet's spiritual jazz fixation into a bold experiment that just didn't warrant repeated listens. What did keep me coming back, much to my chagrin, was this bucolic four-minute edit by OPN that distills every good idea into the perfect early morning four-and-a-half minute house track. Utterly enchanting.
Mr. Mitch - "Dru Pt. 2" - OK, so it's kind of my "thing" to wait until I read the majority of other people's year-end lists before I go about constructing mine, as I can reasonably skip a number of songs that are getting plenty of play elsewhere. But with that methodology in mind, I was still shocked at the sheer good luck of having this song pop up in my email about a week ago, likely due to my following the artist on Bandcamp. And believe me, when I first put it on, my first thought was that the track screamed "giveaway" from its seemingly redundant vocal loops to its unsolicited nature. And yet...showing his best vocal sampling since "Don't Leave," this time Mr. Mitch applies a Carl Stone-like focus to getting the most out of his loops, layering and harmonizing them ever so gently until the track's main hook comes in and you start singing along like a fool. While the keyboard-assisted melody in the song's final third makes for a gratifying last act, if this is any indication of what to expect from Mr. Mitch in the coming year I can't begin to fathom what a proper single might sound like.
Sky H1 - Motion EP - Ever since Visionist and Bill Kouligas kicked off their grime-focused CODES imprint with the major Filter Dread/Acre collabo, that label has frankly become more of a must-watch than PAN at this point and an increasingly leading light in what was a somewhat staid year for club music (Rabit's Halcyon Veil imprint is another must-watch for envelope-pushing club constructions). And this year they found their greatest talent yet in the form of Sky H1, a female producer known for putting a distinctly "feminine" spin on grim. While I cringed when I read that in the surrounding press, when I heard the actual EP I was speechless; she had somehow captured the infinite plurality inherent in the concept of what is "feminine." More importantly, the tracks were as melodious and sensual as they were hard-hitting and inventive, as evidenced on EP stand-out "Air" (though really there isn't a dud amongst the five tracks). This EP really stole my breath and I'm expecting massive, massive tings in 2017.
Kamixlo - "Bloodless Y" (Bala Club) - At this point, you've probably come across the flashier Evian Christ remix of this track that turns down the brutalist minimalism of the original to make way for Christ's way-too-trendy trance fixation (seriously, just listen to the new Lorenzo Senni EP if you want to hear a forward-thinking take on trance, which I previously reviewed here). Having first piqued my interest with his ace 12 on the aforementioned CODES label, the blue-haired Kamixlo, who with Endgame and Uli K and their Bala Club imprint, has become one of the leading lights of London's club scene, in part due to this seriously next-level wrecking ball of a club track. And this is not a track that is everyone's cup of tea as it's principally comprised of an ear worm of a vocal loop that he cuts every which to Sunday over industrial ambience and an aberrant reggaeton beat to construct a song to soundtrack crashing your car into a wall repeatedly. Oh, and if you dig the above track, why don't you download the free EP on Bala Club from which it's taken?
Phresher x Dah Dah x Curly Savv - "Wait A Minute" - So 2016 was a massive let-down for me in terms of what has felt like a steady pushing-forward of the genre since 2013 by a new band of internet-dwelling positrons like Lean and Yachty and just out-and-out weirdos like Thugger. We'll get to the latter two, but in terms of rap bangers that weren't "Panda," the thuggish-ruggish Phresher earned a spot on tthe instant I heard this bruiser on Hot 97 in a car radio a few months back and shit got lit. 2016 was lacking in the "ignorant rap bangers" department--a term I loathe but there have been some serious heaters this decade that married forward-thinking production with the most brutal and incisive of lyrics (like this 2014-winning transmission from Montana of 300), and Phresher (a previous collaborator of Desiigner's) fulfilled the banger quote for me this year.
Kodie Shane ft. Lil Yachty & Lil Uzi Vert - "Hold Up" - Living in Brooklyn, I've at this point heard Young M.A's "OOOUUU" too many times to really like it outside of hearing it on a passing car's speaker (though it's UNDOUBTEDLY one of the songs of the year and if you managed to make it through the year without hearing it, RECTIFY). However, it being the end of the year, the song I'm actually still listening to is this perfect marriage of pop trap beats and sing-song rap hooks featuring the bubbling-up Kodie Shane. The most talented rapper in Yachty's camp who has an eve stronger ear for a hook recruits the red-haired one and his equally zeitgeist-y peer in Lil Uzi Vert to add star power that ultimately proves unnecessary as Shane does all the heavy lifting here (Uzi's "Money Longer" is another song whose lightning bolt synths I heard just a little too many times to want to include in this list, though again, rectify if you're not familiar). And frankly, on first listen one might find "Hold Up" to be a less gonzo version of "1 Night", Shane simply has the lyrical and tonal breadth to make her someone to seriously watch in 2017 and while this song is likely not going to get the play it should (not to mention the fantastic "Drip in My Walk"), her steady output of bangers makes it a mere matter of time before she breaks through to the mainstream (Ugly God on the other hand? Not holding my breath.) PS - Also, can we just take a minute to recognize how much DJ Spinz continues to kill it on top of having the best producer tag in rap? Here's hoping his child-voiced "cut it up" will replace those tired Metro-will-shoot-ya jokes that we can gleefully blame Taylor Swift for popularizing, just like we did for seemingly everything else that was bad in pop music in 2016.
Big Baby D.R.A.M. ft. Lil Yachty - "Broccoli" - Well, at this point it's clear that Yachty has truly become the ghost of rap's present, his style proving so divisive that while the old guard was decrying him as the end of rap as we know, smart and kindred spirits like D.R.A.M. only saw green at the prospect of working with Lil Boat. I didn't really start taking the "Cha-Cha" singer until Erykah Badu started paying , but he was already blowing up the internet, again, with this so-stupid-it's-brilliant slice of pop rap featuring the inescapable Yachty. Fortunately, unlike his phoned-in verse on the above "Hold Up," Yachty turns in an oddly charming set of bars, tasteless Columbine reference aside. And while he's proving to be a great lay-up artist, it's truly the Big Baby's stage that he's warming up as D.R.A.M. takes the song's rainbow-spinkled piano and flute lines as a springboard for some of his most charming yet incisive lyrics, one second barking like the dirty, sleazy dog he is, the next offering up a poignant tableau that dissects the racial politics of lox and brunch.
Kassem Mosse - "Aluminosilicate Mirrors" (Honest Jon's) - Poor Kassem Mosse. After a decade of being one of the most consistent producers in house/techno--his debut album Workshop 19 suffered from the producer treating his long-player more like an extend EP with its 8 predictable tracks--he finally went ballsout and released an actual album. And no one seemed to care. Disclosure was sloppy, uneven, and featured this show-stealing technoid half-stepper. In short, it was a fascinating album that just missed my list of LPs, but this song will be a staple in my DJ sets for years to come, its mid-point speeding up making it a perfect transitional turn-up.
Inkke - "Love Song" (Different Circles) - OK, so full disclosure: This song was released back in 2014 when Mumdance and Logos were shooting out too many weightless grime 12's on their Different Circles imprint for me to catch every single one. So thank jeebus for the release of Mumdance and Logos Present Different Circles as not only is it nowthe now go-to primer for anyone wanting to know what "weightless grime" even sounds like, but is a fantastic compilation in its own right. One would be foolish to focus solely on the Different Circles imprint and expect to take in the full breadth of the genre--I point you to Odeko's majestic A History of Samus EP on Mr. Mtch's Gobstopper records to get more of a taste of the imaginary N64 soundtracks that so many great grime producers are creating. On "Love Song," Inkke demonstrates the genre's inherent flexibility with a 16 bit lullaby, assembling myriad candy cane melodies so fast that this song admittedly passed me by the first few times in its sonic sugar rush romanticism. While it took two years to get there, now that it's on my map, this song is my go-to Inkke jam over his more trap-indebted recent output.
Silk Road Assassins - "Deadcell" (Coyote) - Speaking of trap sounds within contemporary grime, Kuedo set the high-bar back in 2011 with his Severant LP, melding furious high-hats with contemplative and intertwining melodies that could serve as an alternate soundtrack for many a Philip K. Dick film adaptation. When Silk Road Assassins first came to my attention with their good-but-not-great Reflection Spaces mini-LP for Planet Mu this year, I had no idea that their crown jewel of sci-fi grime had already been doing the circuits for a hot minute, laying waste to clubs throughout the UK. So it's with great thanks that Coyote did the rest of the world a favor and pressed this melancholic melter to wax. Boasting anthemic melodies, smart drum programming, and that all essential element, a vibe, "Deadcell" was a welcome addition to a sub genre that tends to sound better on paper than on speaker.
Gundam - "Just Like U" (Self-released) - While R&Grime has been a thing for well over a decade, its current practitioners of note, such as Finn and Gundam, tend to take an almost machine-gun MPC approach that would not likely register to most listeners as being indebted to R&B if those vocal snips and guitar stabs weren't so viscerally recognizable. After all, for Gundam any late 90s-mide 00s R&B track is game and often his manic production style can seem downright hostile to his smooth and silky flow source material, as seen in the "Intimate" side of his recent 12 for Goon Club Allstars. Considerably more prolific than fellow MPC-masher Finn, who released a charming single on Local Action this year, listening to a fifteen-track mixtape of Gundam's can be a serious exercise in hit-and-miss listening. But for his many misses, his hits are nothing short of breathtaking as exemplified in the filtered seizure of a song that "Just Like U" so starkly resembles (seriously, it can feel like listening to a strobe light at times). Similar to Kamixlo's "Bloodless Y" in its sheer brutalizing of a not-quite-identifiable vocal hook, the song sees Gundam stretching and bending his elements through an encyclopedia of rhythmic frameworks. Honestly, I find it difficult even describing what a sheer shot of euphoria I find this song to be, so just give it a listen and decide for yourself.
DJ Lag - "16th Step" (Goon Club Allstars) - Though he might not release much, in three successive transmissions JT The Goon's Goon Club Allstars broke Mssingo, released weightless and waltzing grime, and became the first label to release a Gqom record on the continent. While I was planning on covering the genre solely in my Top Albums list, this unassuming Durban destroyer made that kind of impossible as it's steady 4/4 pulse makes it one of the sneakier and more effective DJ tools I've heard all year. Retaining the doom-and-gloom atmosphere that the genre's usually sparse drums necessitate, Lag seems to be working overtime here as he layers stuttered drums over each other, a hallmark of the genre but one that usually isn't underpinned by such a driving and straightforward beat. As such, he allows the listener to gain a new appreciation for the minimal rhythmic constructions that define much of the Gqom movement in South Africa while providing the enterprising DJ with a sgubhu track that can bridge any number of dance genres together in a pan-global patchwork. Bonus Beat: While I didn't include it in the formal list, JT The Goon's "Oil on Ice (Version 1)" showed that the Triton King's elastic melodies could meld grime and electro in a way that seemed almost too obvious (but totally awesome).
Elf Kid - "Golden Boy" (No Hats No Hoods) - OK, if you're mentally side-eying me right now due to this song's being released last year, hear me out. Firstly, the beat on this track, Lolingo's "New Cross Gate" off the 2014 Boxed compilation was on my year-end list, so I'm already repeating myself. But sometimes a beat just cries out for an ace set of verses and it was at the end of last year that the mysterious Elf Kid transformed the beat from a heads' favorite to a quasi-crossover track for the young grime artist. And if you're not familiar with either the beat or the verse, all you to know is this: It's a UKG take on Amerie's legendary "1 Thing" with the guitar stabs and beats amplified to maximal effect while Elf Kid does lyrical pirouettes that make this writer swoon every time he hears them. Talk about a golden boy.
Danny Brown - "Really Doe ft. Kendrick Lamar, Ab Soul, Earl Sweatshirt" (Warp) - I wont lie; despite this song knocking my pants off upon first hearing it in September, it wasn't until my recent descent into the vexing and incredible Atrocity Exhibition that my respect for this song has truly soared. While it might be the exclamation point on this list, in the context of the album it can be easy for this song to almost breeze by, of course until Earl's angry-emoji delivery comes out of the blue with the seismic "Why you got my house on your chucks? "] And then you hit rewind and realize every rapper is coming with a certain ferocity that is almost uplifting rather than menacing. Almost.