Ah, the year-end list. While I did not follow the online debate, there was apparently an unsurprising backlash against these inherently faulty round-ups of the supposedly “best” albums and singles of the year. This wasn’t much of a surprise if you’ve been keeping track of the trend that’s emerged amongst the countless meta-critical screeds assessing the current fallow state of music criticism and journalism. From Franz Nicolay’s incisive critique of letter grades in reviews to Bradford Bailey’s faulty-yet-engaging assessment of the debate around the seeming disappearance of negative reviews in a time of artist relations to a general existentialist crisis amongst the format's practitioners and publisher, there was much inter- and hypertextual nail-biting to be found in music writing this year.
To cut to the chase, my main takeaway from countless hours writing and thinking about the state of music criticism in 2017 and onward has been that the field of music journalism is in need of a razing of its current practices, one that will likely not happen overnight and will be enacted not by fifty-million-dollar music sites like Pitchfork or once promising alternative sites like Fact. It won't be accomplished by music sites or businesses of any sorts because like any of music history's countless paradigm shifts, passion and enthusiasm has always been a principle motivating factor. And just how passionate or enthusiastic does any music site or streaming service seem these days?
Poptimism has only gotten us so far in terms of re-evaluating the music critical canon. But what about destroying the canon? Do we really need to know ten different publications' "best" songs and albums of the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, naughts, or this decade so far? No, we don't because those publications are essentially compromised entities due to their reliance on publicists and artists for their content, not to mention the countless character flaws your average group of "music fans" exhibit, especially when grouped together under a publication or brand name. Considering how many music writers were English majors and are at least aware of Stanley Fish and the anti-foundationalist canon wars of the late twentieth century, you would think there would be a bit more self-awareness about the inherently flawed endeavor of designating "the best" of anything?
Alas, essentialism--or foundationalism, if you will--has long remained a pernicious force within music criticism due to the fact that promising readers the definitive list of best anything guarantees an increased number of clicks (or magazines sold, way back when). It is looking like the entrenched traditions of print media have finally exhausted their meaningfulness in an age when a fan social media account can carry infinitely more weight than any established publication (see the P4K Brockhampton backlash, any insignificant article on Rhianna or Beyonce). But who will be the agents of change and will our corporate overlords at Spotify and Sony allow an earnest, genuine music journalism to even exist?
If it happens at all, the revolution will happen slowly and quietly through sites like The Hum, Infinite State Machine (if they feel inclined to write more--no pressure, dudes!), and maybe even this one. The fact of the matter is that is non-financially backed sites who are willing to experiment with the established forms and engage in a constructive dialogue with fellow writers and readers in order to arrive at a type of music journalism that sheds the practice’s current status as music-focused lifestyle reporting. While one should always be wary of calls to “just focus on the music” as context almost always warrants equal consideration, obsession with backstories and a collective sense of political self-righteousness has resulted in nothing short of a hollowing out of the medium as writers and readers increasingly lack the verbiage and conceptual understanding needed to evaluate a piece of music in earnest.
When evaluating singles, one is subjected to an even quicker turn-around on opinion, resulting in many half-cocked reactions that like any piece of music, one could totally change their mind on in a matter of days, weeks, or months. In America, songs or tracks retain a novelty value to them; no matter how much you like "Call Me Maybe," you know that you might have never heard from Carly Rae Jepsen again (if she hadn't been engineered in a cuteness lab and seemingly be quite savvy herself). In Playlist Culture, songs become even more disposable as it becomes harder to keep track of the countless titles that one is barraged with if it's not one's job to do so. More so, songs are often taken out of their original album context and placed in countless new ones, but without the care that a DJ mix might afford it as it's compiled from a functionalist standpoint, be it to soundtrack brunch or tennis practice.
When I first started reading year-end lists in the 90s, singles weren't even part of the discussion. And while they have not supplanted the album in terms of a defining musical statement--or at least most critics still see the album as the end-all-be-all--they have forced listeners to be more fluid in their listening practices and more open to variety as more and more songs aren't defined by their genre as much as they are by their general quality. Hell, pop music songwriting now better resembles cooking or chemistry than literature or poetry; take a dash of dembow, add in that post-punk bassline from "Psycho Killer," and throw in the Sonic coin noise for the 80s babies. But when it comes to singles lists--and I'm thinking primarily of Pitchfork's here--when you're including mulitple songs from a single album that you're also ranking in your top albums list, you're adding jackshit to the overall critical music discourse. And each year, I feel like they double down on this practice while virtually ignoring the tens of thousands of songs floating around the web. It's not only lazy, it's offensive to those working in a primarily singles-oriented field as it reveals the rockist-derived viewpoint that somehow "real music" is made via live instruments and musicians.
As I'll discuss further in the album round-up list later this week, we lack a critical language as listeners and increasingly as writers as well to intelligently talk about music at this point in time. Music journalism has become lifestyle reporting and the short half-life of a single means that it's often treated as an accessory to an album or a piece of musical ephemera than an artform in its own right. As this list will hopefully illustrate, such a mentality is woefully behind the times.
The following two-part listicle takes in my favorite singles and EPs, albums, and reissues of 2017, which still feels utterly insurmountable in its volume and quality level.
OK, let’s do this thing!
Future - Draco (Freebandz Entertainment 2017)
OK, let’s get it out of the way: “Draco” was the best thing about Future and HNDRXX has become woefully overrated--let the poptimists burn me at the stake, they're on a sinking boat anyway. Though shout out to the post-Mustard-meets-Polow da Don pop of "Incredible." Or maybe it's just the fact that when I put on Future last February and was greeted with "Draco," the presumed radio hit that never was thanks to the just-ok "Mask Off," I pissed my pants, so overwhelmed was I by the euphoric trap hymnal. Don't get me wrong; it's kind of a dumb song. And not just kind of. Featuring the chorus “You won’t never ever get your bitch back,” it’s a three-minute ode to chauvinism. It's Future in misogynist auto-driver mode. The music video makes no goddamn sense and I fear it might be Future's idea of what female empowerment looks like. It's also one of the most uplifting and bizarrely life-affirming pop songs to hit my ears in some time. It's the "Joy to the World" of rap.
After all, this was supposed to be the hit that “Mask Off” was. Alas, the inability for "Draco" to gain much traction in the mainstream is a testament to a post-"Where Are Ü Now" world, where a melodic hook is as if not more important than the vocal hook, especially if it's 'unique' or comfortably familiar. Unlike that song’s sultry flute earworm, the handful of components comprising “Draco” seem uncomfortably oversized, rubbing up one another almost uncomfortably. The serotonin-charged stubbornness of the arpeggiated synth, the charging trap drums that hit almost as hard on the one as on the two and four, the half-time hissy hi-hat hits, Future’s eight ball-like marriage of sedated and supercharged--it’s almost comical on first listen how overstuffed it is. Still, that eight-note major key melody that both the beat and Future ride without pause is unbelievably catchy and uplifting when you allow his words to turn into the cyber-harmonic slur it oft resembles, interlocking with and charging ahead with the major key, arpeggiated-to-death paint-by-numbers trap beat. By the time the robo-crooner goes up a register in the third chorus and continues for a solid four bars after the beat has reached its templated end, it’s like he’s transcended the entirety of pop itself while remaining cheerily behind its structural limits. Future’s music has long looked to the stars and on “Draco” he clears the atmosphere, material and emotional baggage checked.
Kendrick Lamar - DNA. (TDE 2017)
While this list is certainly intended to shine light on under-heralded gems, a game-changing song is a game-changing song and no other song contained the type of enraged brilliance found on "DNA," the lead track off of Lamar's third and best album, DAMN. In the context of the album, the intro collage of cable news ignorance and racism serves as the perfect build-up for the battering ram of a beat. Pummeled by a multimedia onslaught of bigotry, ignorance, and systemic oppression, Lamar is somehow all the stronger and more principled for it (fuck a snitch). For as clever as the rapper is and the more so he becomes, what this song has that so many others of his lacked is pure emotion coupled with the insightful wordplay that makes him a cross-generational draw. Eight months since its release and I'm just now able to listen to the song without bursting into tears. Seriously, talk about a humbling fucking song.
Racial essentialism took on new life in 2017 as being a person of color finally ceased being seen as something one chooses to perform and rather as something foisted upon individuals the second they emerge into this world and that haunts one for as long as things refuse to change. Whether it was to be found in the brilliant web series American Koko and its Toni Morrison-aligned idea of inherited racial trauma, Kara Walker’s more potent-than-ever nonlinear historical tableaus, or the chorus of “The Story of OJ” in which Jay-Z took an idea from Nina Simone about the social coding of racism and how it's internalized and ran with in it, something major changed this year. And Bill Maher was just one of many necessary corrective actions. “DNA.” is where the silenced talk back, shoving the stereotypes and assumptions down the listener’s ears and revelling in its own enlightened belligerence. Oh, and can we talk about that beat change-up for a moment that happens in the song’s third act? Yeah, I know Kendrick asked that the beat sound like chaos, but to hear actual chaos in what is ostensibly a pop song, to hear the beat pushing against its own genre-specific strictures as an MPC-triggered scream is hammered out for eight bars longer than is sensible, well, I really don't know if there was a more affecting moment in music for me in 2017. Bonus Beat: And let's just take a moment to pour one out for another song that might still become a hit at the pace it took Bodak Yellow to reach number one: "LOYALTY."
All the demoes that the young boy Gaunt sent me that made my cry ecstatically, laugh maniacally, and just generally lose my shit.
Hate putting music on here I can't even share, but I literally cannot publish this list in good conscience when my iTunes informs me I've played certain songs of his over fifty times. In a year when UK artists who came up in the shadows of dubstep continued to forge a sound all their own, his music was a constant reminder that the best hasn't even been released yet--though his EP on Beneath's Mistry label is totally worth scoping as his Soundcloud, which contains a Ben UFO radio rip of one of my absolute faves of his, "Black Bile." The one to watch.
Ikonika - "Manual Decapitation" (Hyperdub 2017)
When Ikonika first arrived on the scene in 2009, dubstep had grown stale, making her proggy dub stylings a welcome reprieve. And while she never has managed to turn in a no-filler LP, her releases almost always contain at least one undisputed banger, like "Praxis" on last year's Position EP. While the aptly-named Distractions was full of grime-inflected tracks and quasi-pop songs that failed to land, it did contain one out-and-out heater in the form of "Manual Decapitation," a song that drew upon her longstanding love for dramatic arpeggiations, clanging gothic bells, and a baroque-twee aesthetic that should never have worked. But that's always been the brilliance of Ikonika when she's on proper form, an uncanny ability to realize the seemingly impossible.
Kodak Black - Change My Ways (Warner 2017)
“Like I got a whole other soul or some shit, y’know what I mean.” Yeah, Kodak, we fucking do. I'm not gonna front; I had given up on Kodak Black, so disgusted have I been by actions off-record. Still, the opening thirty seconds of "Change My Ways" was hands-down one of the most exhilarating musical moment of 2017, played to me at 3am after a long night out with my dude. "Yo, the new Kodak is NUTS," he said. "Sure, whatever, " I replied, unconvinced. Knowing me too well, my objections were ignored as the the orchestral warm-up that provides the track its foundation started coalescing, Kodak purposefully stumbling over the first few bars, muttering that all-too-self-aware opening line before everything just clicks and we're in introspective banger mode. One of the most self-sabotaging rappers out there who will follow a radio triumph with sexual assault, he’s burnt many a bridge in his colorist observations and general disregard for women. But there’s always that other side of Kodak; the insightful poet, the MC with a golden ear for beats, and a person fully aware that he is own worst enemy with some fucked priorities. Just how sincere the sentiments voiced on "Change My Ways remain open for debate, but at least he's showing a bit more self-awareness than [insert rich entitled white dude's name here]. Given the post-Weinstein reckoning that hit at long last this fall, the coming year will see us argue regularly about what role an artist’s personal life has in enriching or contaminating their work. Amongst my friends and especially my wise-beyond-her-year sister, the merits of such music remain readily open for debate. I often find myself taking a frustratingly relativistic approach as I rarely think one’s behavior is reason to discredit their whole artistic body of work. But at the same time--as the artist Apollonia Saintclair explained in conversation with me this summer--if I were to tell you Michaelangelo was a serial killer or Langston Hughes was a CIA operative, that would change your perception of their work, no? Like it or not, the personal and poetic are largely one in the same, for better and worse. So yeah, I had a hard time including this in my list, but the fact that I listened to it nearly 100 times must mean something...right? ,Wise beyond his years, it’s easy to forget that he’s still a child in many ways, which makes his behavior all the more inexcusable, just like any other abusive man-child. But I'll be goddamned if this song isn't a special one.
John Swing - Free Time Groove (Relative 2017)
While the bulk of tracks and EPs that were my favorites of 2017 generally elicited a totalizing sense of "what the fuck am I listening to," when I picked up the German-based Relative label's twentieth release featuring two cuts from owners Swing and EMG on either side, it was not unlike putting on a beloved pair of corduroys following a sizable weight loss. All the parts were in the right place and feeling of déja vu washed over me, first as the fine-tuned garage house of "Private Affair" came out galloping with its all-too-familiar vocal sample (which I STILL can't place!!!) But it wasn't until the swinging drums of "Free Time Groove" and its looped vocal refrain came on that I felt like I was listening to some long lost Strictly Rhythm or Nervous Records anthem. No idea if this song was a hit on dance floors this year and I don't really care as this is that type of anthem that everyone thinks they've heard before, even if they haven't.
外神田deepspace - Shinjuku Lights (Clave House 2017)
I've never visited the Shinjuku neighborhood of Tokyo, let alone Japan, but the area is one that has appeared frequently within pop culture over the years and has always represented the country's tastemaking set. Commerce is the first thing I tend to associate with the neighborhood, though it is one teeming with culture and life of all forms in the art, music, movies, manga, and anime that can be readily found. While the title of 外神田deepspace's EP for the amazingly-named label Clave House. Despite only being three releases into their catalog, in scoping the comments of their releases' DIscogs pages, I came across this insightful nugget in reference to an early label comp: "Midtempo house joints that aren't too dark or too jovial." Having had Shinjuku for a couple months yet never feeling like I've quite broken through its cagey exterior, reading that sentence perfectly encapsulated the deep, wide-ranging sound found on this EP. Peering across the scattered light portals illuminating the city's sykscrapers at night, things come into focus quickly via th argpeggiated intro of "Shinjuku LIghts 01." Delayed dub chord stabs soon suggest that this isn't going to be quite the sun-dappled, birdcall-heavy house record one can be forgiven for mistaking it for as over the remaining two sides, the producer toys with deep techno, acid, and a number of other dance music tropes without every committing or becoming beholden to one, retaining a nimble sensibility unmistakably his own. Highlight "Shinjuku Blues" moves at a sauntering dub techno pace before delving into vistas far removed, the starlight arps and waxing moon of a topline taking the track into a zone all its own.
Cocktail Party Effect - Battered EP (Cold Recordings 2017)
While Tectonic has always been dubstep pioneer Pinch's main outpost, the past few years have seen him almost furtively working on his near-buy-on-site Cold Recordings imprint. As stated on its Discogs page, the label was founded to showcase "new movements in the ever evolving UK hardcore-continuum — taking inspirational vibrations from a long standing heritage that ran through acid house, hardcore, jungle, UK garage, dubstep and beyond.” OK, never minding the fact that as prescribed by its innovator Simon Reynolds, acid house would be part of the UK Hardcore Continuum and many of its propnents consider dubstep not to be as well, it still provides a misleading catch-all as to what is currently going on in UK dance music that came from or was inspired by dubstep: A move away from a focus on uniform genre or a cohesive scene towards a grouping of producers who draw upon all those influences and much more. It's not about making an acid house record anymore--though tell Artwork that. Rather, we're seeing something of an anti-scene take hold that speaks to the fact that the more prescriptive aspects of the 'nuum were woefully shortsighted to handle the unmitigated degree of stylistic synthesis currently taking place in bass-heavy UK dance music.
In a sense, then, you could say that Cold Recordings represents the old guard to a degree, that moment when Pinch released Croydon House and the longstanding flirtation between techno and dubstep turned into a tantric, ongoing exchange that has enfolded counless other genres and styles while eschewing templates or formalism. That's not to say there aren't certain commonalities and for every truly FWD release like Bruce's EP for Hemlock, there's a proper post-nuum set of heaters waiting in the wings. Battered is the sound of the new peaktime set, even if it likely won't be played after 1am or before 5am for at least another year as even at its most straightforward, like on the white-knuckled title track, one can hear elements of electro, techno, Jersey club, experimental noise, industrial, and broken beat. More importantly, these elements fit together so smoothly that most are not likely to even consider this stylistic mélange as they'll be too busy dancing their asses off.
Parris - Your Kiss is Sour / Two Vultures (Hemlock/The Trilogy Tapes 2017)
Over the summer, there was a minor fervor amongst certain corners of the dance music internets over the title track for Parris’ debut twelve for the estimable Hemlock label which saw dubstep and grime signifiers being melted into a simmering soup of weightless dynamics and ambiguous signifiers that transcended the sum of its influences in a more-than-fine style. The flip pointed to an equally potent strain within Parris’ music in the form of “Flowering in Threes,” a ¾ waltz-like dub not unlike his curatorial efforts for his own Soundman Chronicles label which has plotted an alternate course for contemporary FWD-informed dubstep. For this listener, the Hemlock release helped to inform the quasi-trad dub stylings of “Lionel’s Dub” that opens his end-of-year missive for The Trilogy Tapes, an errant bell melody and horror movie atmospherics helping to craft a mellow yet unsettled vibe ripe with dread while “Hanging with the Birds” utitlized familiar video game-sourced sound effects (Sonic, right?) to novel effect. Elsewhere, “Hot Blooded” offered an exciting twist on the Bristol-Berlin sound while OV$VMV$M followed up their ace remix of K-Lone's "Southern Comfort" for Parris' said label with a blistering collab on the title track. While Parris is definitely carving out a readily identifiable sonic signature, he's clearly a wily wabbit who won't be easily pinned down anytime soon. Stoked to hear more from him in 2018.
Laksa - Workout EP (Batsakiya Tapes 2017)
In an interview with the producer Callum Laksa earlier this year, an artist who is seemingly becoming more dangerous with each release, he remarked how disparate each release of his has been, a comment that wasn't self-obvious at first to me. Dance music's gold is found in the cracks, in the tracks that can be easily affixed with genre tags that only indicate the continent one is on with so many new vistas yet to be discovered; mutation might lack the linearity of evolution but it's the thorny outliers that give color and smell to often under-realized environments. The Contrasts EP for Timedance and his two Mistry twelves suggested a restless soul who could move from post-Livity moebius strip beats to harrowing techno-informed narratives with ease. Following this past fall's Illian Tapes missive that fused ghostly abstractions with insightful banger, Laksa chose to flex his techno chops again and further took the listener down a different path. A producer who seems most comfortable in between the downbeats, both sides of the Workout are full-on weirdo heaters, neither neatly fitting the techno mold while shrewdly using the genre's idioms. The title track is Laksa at his most explosive, yet the grid keeps him from just going over the edge as he deploys an array of sounds and riffs that are far more interesting than the vast majority of lifer techno producers. "RAM" on the flip is more focused, meditative fare underscored by a field of distortion and a trampoline-like bassline that holds everything together. While I doubt he would consider himself a techno producer per se, it never ceases to amaze the level of ingenuity he brings to an oft-tired form.
Batu - Marius (Hessle Audio 2017)
If I've learned anything listening to the array of artists orbiting around the Timedance, Wisdom Teeth, and Mistry Labels, it's not to expect a damn thing. Following on his blistering run of twelves for his own Timedance label in addition to his killer collab with badman ultimate Lurka, he's turned in a surprisingly sublime set of techno mutations for that longstanding bastion of all things FWD, Hessle Audio. "Marius" is easily the winner as it affixes a truly beguiling yet spectral melody upon a Livity-esque technoid samba. Returning to the more bass-focused and ominous vibes of his Timedance material but at a considerably languid ace, "Off Court" sees the producer again playing with a stunted 4x4 framework, forgoing the kick on the fourth or eighth (as on "Marius") to create a polyrhythmic concoction that is as dizzying as it is delicious. Batu goes full-techno on the tempered "Nosema," pushing forward on the back of a steady kick over which he layers a signature syncopated low tom patterns to liven things up and keep dancers on their toes. Ending things on a delightfully aslant note is the weightlessly sparkling "Don't," which sounds like it'll make a perfect mix companion w NWAQ's "Stars." One of the main reasons I buy Batu's and so many other's releases is that I rarely ever "get them" on the first few listens, but once I do, well then I can't seem to shut up about em. This one is as slipper as Batu's other releases but contains a bright quality to it, a sunniness that is all this twelve's own.
D'Arcangelo - D'Arcangelo (Rephlex/Suction 1996/2017)
Can we have our year-end lists back now, please? At least in years past, I could pull up RA's reader's poll and staff lists and chuckle to myself how much I don't get the mainstream dance press while still feeling its ultimate effect to be a benign one. However, by choosing to give a cursory look at nine trends going on in dance music "around the world" (re: Western Europe, Brooklyn, and South America), I found myself getting actually heated by a time of music journalism I do all the time, which is to try and offer a synopsis of certain trends I'm seeing. The issues was, the trends that RA chose to highlight didn't really feel like trends, like at all. For instance, take the "electro trend" that sat at the top of their list. Sure DJ Stingray has been getting long overdue recognition and DJ's like Objekt and Helena Hauff have embraced the genre. So fucking what? Are they representative of the tens of thousands of DJ's out there? While records they play are ruthlessly trainspotted, as far as this electro fan is concerned, the year's most important non-Drexciya-related electro reissue came via Lowfish and Solvent's Suction Records when they saw fit to issue D'Arcangelo's 1996 self-titled EP issued on CD via Rephex the vinyl pressing it's been deserving of for twenty-one years. As the label stated in their press release, its founders were both blown away by the release as it "was one of the first releases to make a firm connection between contemporary IDM/electronix and the sound of ‘80s synth pop." A Janus-faced EP, one side contains three tracks of sinister, dystopian electro of the industrial variety while the other features three of the catchiest electro pop tunes you're likely to ever encounter. Over two decades later, the record still sounds frighteningly ahead of its time and given the silence with which its vinyl pressing was met, it will be some time before the RA crowd catches up. Not that I'm complaining!
Terrence Dixon - A Thief in the Night (Tresor 2017)
Well, I guess this never became quite the sensation I thought it would, huh? Several years on since noise techno was last en full vogue, Dixon--one of those techno artists who commands a formidable amount of respect like few others--went full thizz face on fools by giving his take on the noise-techno sound upon which he was a considerable influence, smoking everyone in the process. One of those records that you’ll think has broken your table or computer when first putting it on, Dixon shows that beneath the noise and distortion, a proper groove is at the heart of any banging techno track, even if one feels that they are just starting to figure it out as one song begins and the next piece of organized chaos begins. Even on the beatless piece, there’s an overwhelming sense of technoid menace at work here that may have been largely overlooked. Hell, even on opener "Frequencies," once the listener acclimates themselves to Dixon's sensibility, it almost sounds like hard rock with a beat. for those who drank the Kool-Aid, this will serve as a monumental release for years and decades to come. Mark my words.
Kuzma Palkin - Macho Culture/Sierpinksi Curve (Quartet Series/Gost Instrument 2017)
This is something of a token entry as I know these do not represent "the best" of what has been emanating from Russia in the past year, but it's a start. Having been told about how amazing the Russian dance music scene centered around the Gost Zvuk label since the winter months but only just taking the plunge a couple weeks ago via the bodacious Macho Culture EP, I know one thing for certain: I'm going to be spending all my free money on more releases from the likes of Palkin, Buttechno, OL, and an ever-growing cadre of producers who seem to draw upon their cultural isolation to create truly baffling electronic music. While the EP's highlighted here are strictly dance affairs, artists like Ледяной Альбом, Винтажнайк, and Лапти have all turned in top-shelf albums that jump around all over the place stylistically while retaining an icy, alien veneer. Outside of Russia, Buttechno and Palkin have emerged as the best-known names, the former actually releasing on a label outside of his homeland via Will Bankhead's The Trilogy Tapes, and favoring a scuzzy, swampy aesthetic out of which countless forms and structures may arise at any moment. Palkin at least makes a passing nod to the tropes of dance tracks, but while elements like the 808 toms and chunky basslines, they are put in far more outré surroundings as melodies are replaced by spinning light cycles of harmony and any semblance of linearity is feigned. Honestly, I'm still learning to talk about this music so just hit play and open your mind, please.
Newworldaquarium - Chubby Knucks (NWAQ 2017) / Ross154 - Fragments (A.R.T. 1994/2017)
OK, so this year saw the Newworldaquarium reissue project carrying on in fine form as the artist himself did any self-respecting techno fan the massive favor of reissuing his legendary Strike LP released under his inward-looking 154 alias. And while this guy was thrilled not to have to buy a copy as my original pressing works just fine, thank you very much, I happily dispensed with coin to procure the long out-of-print Fragments EP released in 1994 via Kirk DeGiorgio’s A.R.T. imprint. Ross 154 was NWAQ's mostly 90s, often IDM-leaning project as hard on Fragments album-length statement sees him doling out the isolationist dub disco played deep within your soul in six generous portions. The easiest way to describe the project to one who At least knows NWAQ is to replace the samples with radiant synths and to turn inward instead of look outwardOf course, as exciting and essential as both these releases were, the fact that 2017 saw the artist himself returning to release a new twelve of vintage grooves and new idea-riddled tangents in the form of "Chubby Knuckles" should have grabbed headlines and reviews across the dance music media. Instead, it seemingly got bought up rabidly by us hardcore NWAQ fans. Oh well, see you at the next round of reissues! Also, instead of a resolution, let me share my wish for the New Year: that Joachim Peteri finally gets around to completing the interview questions I sent him. Until then, please enjoy this all-NWAQ mix I did last summer!
A$AP Ferg ft. Cam'ron - Rubber Band Man (2017)
Do not let me mince words here: I adored Ferg's debut album Trap Lord with the same fervor that I despised Always Strive and Prosper, which saw him jacking late 90s/early 00s Memphis beats in a way that went way past referential towards the overly reverential, all the while seemingly trying to make every song commercially viable as a single. Needless to say, I stopped paying attention to the A$AP crew as in an age where the concept of pastiche is becoming irrelevant, the crew's need to flex their rap knowledge tends to evacuate anything meaningful from the music. Thank dog for Killer Cam then, last seen blowing one of the last chances he'll ever have to be successful again when his shockingly good collab with A-Trak got shelved due to a bad contract. Riding a mid-tempo trunk rattler built around a gauzy sample the sounds like it's rewound and fast forwarded at the same time, Ferg drops the pop posturing and outside of the title--which I'm assuming is a nod to the TI classic--focuses not on flexing his rap nerdiness but gets down to basis being the ace utility player he's always been. Cam just does Cam, which is really all you can from him. No one saw this coming.
Norken - Southern Soul (Delsin 2017)
Call me old-fashioned, but I love me some Delsin. While Rush Hour and increasingly Dekmantel are the Amsterdam techno labels everyone loves to love, Delsin has remained frighteningly consistent in its output over the past twenty year. Having introduced the world to Newworldaquarium, Aardvarck, and a bajillion other now-established techno artists, the past few years have seen them turning their attention to the reissue market with a selective acumen that's as unusual as it is welcome. But unlike their friends over at Rush Hour who have focused on US house and techno, Delsin has always kept its focus on the old country, reissuing late 90s and early 00s house and techno gems from the likes of Exos and Claro Intellecto while also shining a light on cracking New Zealand-bred, London-based label Nurture via its Son.sine and Micronism reissues. So when I saw a Delsin white label over the summer with just the label logo on the backside, I knew I was in trouble. "Southern Soul" was the title track off of his debut EP on REEL Discs back in 1997 and Delsin was smart to pair the ahead-of-its-time proto-microhouse of the A with two deep, solid cuts from the producer's debut album released in 1999. The producer, born Lee Norris, takes his looping, wonky hook and imbues it with a live sensitivity as he moves back and forth between two main melodic motifs, stretching and contracting them with each passing phrase. It's an absolute stunner of a track, the kind that can't help but jump out at you during a mix, not least due to the shooting sonic streams that resemble those goofy fountains from the 90s you'd see at fancy malls and Disney World.
Equiknoxx - "Congo Get Slap (Mark Ernestus Remix)" b/w "Flagged Up (Mark Ernestus Remix)" (DDS 2017)
I'm not going to front: when I got the near-daily Boomkat email that announces each single essential release they stock, I thought to myself, "I wonder if this is where I stop caring about Mark Ernestus." Of course, just looking at the past eight years, he has turned in a small but essential batch of remixes that has extended his love for different artists--Obadikah, Konono No. 1, BBC, Ben Zabo, not to mention post-rock giants Tortoise. Listening to each of these, it becomes painfully clear that he does not approach the art of remixing lightly, displaying an all-too unique reverence for his source material while making each one unmistakably his own. Still, the fact that he was moved to remix two of the hottest tracks on last year's Bird Sound Power collection--a favorite around these parts--suggested that he was once again approaching his task with a deep reverence for the obtuse dancehall proferred by the Kingston-based duo. That said, a Rhythm & Sound re-rub these were not. On his heavily percussive reworking of "Cogno Get Slap," Ernestus keeps a number of the original's most memorable moments while constructing a dense-yet-slippery groove that always seems to end about ten minutes too early. "Flagged Up," on the other hand, opens up with a shivering bed of dubwise chords before nothing more than a liquid kick drum pattern enters the mix to provide its rhythmic engine, tonal clouds floating about as he navigates the restrained grooved
Ozel AB - Workshop 24 (2017)
Just two releases out in 2017 and Workshop had released probably two of the 'biggest' euro noise EPs of the year, somehow improving on the immaculate Willow EP with an equally accomplished and confident six-tracker (eight if you got the edition with the seven inch). Sierra Echo wastes no time in kicking things off with a bang, the Robert Owens-indebted refrain of "I Just Love" looping over all eight minutes with the producer employing some restrained and devastating layering. "Orbit 416" is pretty much what made me want this in the first place as it features a quixotic bell line that creates a truly whimsical vibe l, but never maudlin. Largely unintelligible female vocals speak throughout, words and phrases breaking through to suggest an epic children's story is being told to capitalize on the track's fairytale quality. While a bit less immediate than the A, "Positronic Dreams" trades in the type of euro-Chicago sound I usually can't stand but once again, the producer's smart as hell vocals and a descending, contemplative chord progression working together to create a silk-coated banger. The A2 and B2 tracks serve as beatless interludes sounding like sentient music boxes. "Whuffie" ends things on a melancholic yet hopeful note as the producer manages to show off his melodic chops even more so, weaving together a deep and minimal house vibe that works way better than it should. Hate all you want and yes, this and the Willow have likely made it into plenty a Topshop playlist but gosh dang, when two records sporting a jellyfish and a bicycle, respectively, are as good as Workshop 24 and 23 have been, it's hard to do much else than dance and mix.
As I noted in my initial review of this record, while there's some questionable borrowing of ideas and sounds going on here, it's also a considerable step forward from the lo-fi house sound that Ozel explored on his two Lobster Theremin releases before finding an equally referential style that at least had some meat to it. And this brings us bac to that dreadful RA roundup as an intermission of sorts as speaker of trurths, Jamal Moss aka Hieroglyphic Being, was less than happy with the write-up on the "scene" that's apparently only been active since 2015 .I mean, why ever listen to DJ Seinfeld and Ross From Friends when you can dig into late-00s New York House and other artists from that period like Hieroglyphic Being who were utterly killing it. Not to mention that the success experienced by the likes of Mall Grab and DJ Boring raises some serious issues, as Moss recently pointed out an in a fantastic Facebook post I'm posting below.
The first of two Stroom records to be featured in my year-end favorites, this might be the biggest WTF record on this list and I didn't even include the batshit full-length compilation Workshop for the Restoration of Unfelt Feelings that also came out this year and is much more wide-rangng and wacked-out then this considerably focused four-track collection of dance-not-dance. Founded in 1982 by two Latvian gentlemen, Hardijs Lediņš who was the architect and DJ and "universal artist" Juris Boiko, the two were heavily influenced by the electronic avant-garde as well as New Age and New Wave music. A multimedia project with video and performance elements supplementing the zonked-out beats and electronic excursions, NSRD can be thought of as the Latvian Crass of sorts in their wide-ranging artistic and political activities and open-door membership policy that saw a host of artists, architects, fashion designers, actors, and yes, musicians pass through between '82 until their eventual dissolution in 1989. While the LP compilation is decidedly more varied and out-there, the four dance-not-dance tracks on hand on this supplemental EP became one of those records I heard a couple times at the shop and soon found myself obsessed. Truly music like no other.
Young Thug - "Cruise Ship"
Man, what a weird year for Young Thug. Or at least weirder than usual. Having released his “singing album” Beautiful Thugger Girls in a move that made any fan of his wonder what he would call what he’s been doing up to this point, he remained productive yet unable to score a major hit, even on a mixtape pair-up with Future. In fact, it’s rather ironic that Super Slimey contained the artist’s best track of the year, a solo cut in the form of the carefree “Cruise Ship.” Over a shimmering, designer glockenspiel-led beat, Thugger does what he best: go the fuck in, nearly tripping over himself again and again, yet maintaining perfect balance throughout. Featuring head-scratching melodic tangents and some truly outlandish and hilarious adlibs, “Cruise Ship” is far from the grand statement of intent that Thugger seems increasingly unlikely to release. One of our generation’s most singular and accomplished vocalists--yes, I said it--”Cruise Ship” works because Thugger is often at his best on deep cuts that are unlikely hits and while he released numerous songs of equal quality, this is the one that perks up my ears everytime it comes on YouTube autoplay. If nothing else, the song expressed this crucial truism: I was cool as a cat/state all the facts.
Octavian - Party Here
Is it just me or do you find yourself wondering “how is this not a hit” with increased regularity these days? A number of should-be smashes like Future’s “Draco” and Kendrick and Rhianna’s “LOYALTY.” at least were backed by failed campaigns to try and ensure their spot on the charts--ones that still got them tens of millions of listen-- but an increasing number of others seemingly appeared out of thin air and were lost to the online ether just as fast. Although it's been sitting around since the summer watching its views increase at the speed of a forgettable mixtape cut, the comments section for the French-born, Southeast London-raised MC's dream pop grime is rife with exasperated count-watching, the track's converts mystified as to why no one has come to the party yet. I was hipped to this so-UK-it-hurts future pop jam by a trusted friend only a few weeks ago who'd been sitteng on it for months with an ardent “how is this not the biggest smash” sentiment. It took a couple listens, I soon found myself wondering the same thing. In just two minutes and forty seconds, the dextrous vocalist known as Octavian comes pounding out of the gate over a spartanly emotive beat that seems to breathe and exhale in tandem with his own tempered, weary flow before the out-of-nowhere chorus comes in, wavy bell synths and disembodied female vox swirling about in tandem. It's a study in opposites; Octavian paints a melancholy picture of survival and loyalty, voice cracking in a way that signal to the listener that this young man has lived. But at the of the daily drama, you have your crew and with those you trust, it's always a party. If Drake didn’t seem to be stuck in 00s UK culture, one would think this would be an obvious beat for him to jack as the forlorn trumpet of the downbeat verses transform in a single line to a post-funky throwdown. The specters of UK dance past are free to reinvent themselves anew and cross-breed in a way that embraces the banality of diurnal anxieties and nightly hedonism in a way that feels both willfully naive and precociously astute. This could be the pop future we deserve.
Aphex Twin - Nagadrums 2+7 (2017)
Taken from a 100+ minute tape sold at Richard D. James appearance at Fuji Rock Festival in Japan this past July and sold in a limited edition of 500--with Discogs prices going as high as $325 so far--this is the Aphex Twin in 2017 I love. Is everything he touches golden? Fuck no. Last year's Cheetah was awfully boring and self-indulgent and the same could be said for this track's non-hook, James smearing melodic impressions and ineffably clustered chord progressions across an agile, brisk breakbeat that remains unusually consistent for an artist who relishes changing things up every four bars. Of course, there is a lot going on in this track, but the reason it's become one of my favorite new pieces of his is that unlike the manic compositions on Syro, this actually grooooooves while also rewarding countless listens. It's a minor hit in a catalog of immense bangers, but it's also the first piece of his since the morose breakbeat jam "XMD5a" and Syro's heartbreaking stand-our "PAPAT4that makes me want to bawl on the dance floor and cry to the heavens. After all, at the end of the day, James too just wants to light up a spliff and be taken somewhere nice, so won't you please come along?
Randomer - Smokin’ (L.I.E.S. 2017)
I’ve never particularly liked Randomer--though I get the appeal--and lord knows my love for L.I.E.S. has been largely dormant since 2012, though again, they have their moments. But when a trusted source recommended the Smokin’ EP, making pains to comment upon just how unusual the recommendation was given the prolific label, I set aside my skepticism to give it an honest listen and remain pleased as peach that I did. The title track on the A sees the artist deploying his industrial-tinged straing of dubstep-informed techno with the type of low-end and ferocious techno found on recent Livity Sound releases from Asusu and Hodge. Despite effortlessly synthesizing his disparate influences to devastating effect for the dance floor while retaining an unmistable electro thump, for this writer/DJ’s purpose, the real gold can be found on the B1 cut “Velvet,” a track that begs to open a wide-ranging and forward-thinking set as once again it enfolds countless influences into it rhythm machine, churning out a pensive and stage-setting piece that is menacing yet warm. “Rye” provides the third and final freshening of Randomer’s range as he evokes a tribal drum circle, but with a pedigree and respect that I’ve personally never heard from him before. Fantastic twelve.
Finn - Sometimes the Going Gets a Little Tough (Local Action 2017)
Finn McCory knows his way around a goddamned loop. For the past several years, he’s been something of a secret weapon for club DJ’s with a sweet tooth, taking a disembodied vocal loop or thirty and stitching them together in tracks that could double as paeans to Ableton’s sample chop function. And while he’s had his share of underground club hits using the vocals of many of Top 40’s greatest, “Sometimes” sees him cooking up an ear worm of a vocal hook that feels like it’s been directly beamed from the golden days of disco house. Indeed, while I actually grimaced during the opening moment of my first listen—you have no idea how many promising producers I’ve lost interest in when making such a stylistic maneuver--I soon relaxed, realizing that I had nothing to fear. For as manically chopped-up and stylistically varied as his products are, Finn is a sucker for a hook-filled groove and “Sometimes” delivered that in spades as he took the main vocal hook and repeated its titular phrase into infinity over a sweet, fist-pumping beat. It’s not for everyone, but mad love to those it is.
K-Lone - In the Dust EP (Soundman Chronicles 2017)
As co-founder of the increasingly must-buy Wisdom Teeth label, K-Lone’s productions have served as something of a roadmap for the label’s expanding sound, shifting from obtuse steppers to ambient dub with considerable aplomb. Turning in two tracks for Parris’ dubstep-from-a-parallel-world-where-it-never-got-shitty label Soundman Chronicles, his platter was a significant one both for the imprint and artist as it felt both like a parallel current to its founder’s own avant dub explorations for Hemlock and Trilogy while feeling like the producer’s most personal and distinct release to date. “Southern Comfort” on the A is a ten-minute epic where waves of crashing sound eventually give way to a dub techno-informed burner that at times calls to mind the Burial song with which it shares a cover, all grey skies and po-faced stoicism belying an emotional underbelly. It’s a potent reminder that the spectre first cast by Rhythm & Sound over the early days of dubstep is still strongle resonating with a new generation of producers who came of age alongside dubstep’s waxing and waning. Equally pensive is the syncopated halfstep-not-halfstep of “In the Dust of this Planet” and its gorgeous reworking by ambient grime kingpins O$VMV$M, which made for a personal highlight from the duo’s catalog.
Ploy - Unruly/Intrigued By the Drum (Hemlock/Timedance; 2017)
For an artist who’s only been releasing under the Ploy alias only since his blistering Hessle Audio debut in the winter of 2016, this fall saw the UK’s Ploy wrapping up a second year of positively dazzling array of releases. Moving past the zero-gravity techno that was a hallmark of his 2016 output, he turned in two more missives this fall that toe the line between masterfully-designed DJ tools and WTF home-listening odysseys. I gotta admit, while I will be writing about Ploy’s music in-depth very shortly, most write-ups about him just seem to miss the point entirely, evoking house and techno to describe a music birthed from the ashes of dubstep. But where some of his peers look to the lowend with which to draw inspiration from, Ploy’s greatest strength is the percussive prowess on show across Intrigued by the Drum’s four tracks, its titular piece riding a wobbly woodblock-led beat as echoes of mbira help color in the abundant negative space, a balance struck across the EP. On his outing for Hemlock from last November, Ploy draws for a more synthetic palette as sixteenth-note synth hits, canned snare fills, and a smoke-filled atmosphere clouds one’s field of vision, stumbling through each piece purely by luck sometimes. By the time the beatless “Lost Hours” concludes the double-header, one is free to loosen their grip and to stop grinding their teeth as the producer clears out some of the clutter, setting the stage for the seemingly infinite possibilities that away Ploy.
Released at the end of last year, I managed to avoid listening to the thirteen-minute percussive opus out of a stubborn refusal to throw down $20 on a single-sided piece of wax courtesy of limited edition fetishist Boomkat. As you’ll see, half of them ended making it to both my collection and this list so please listen when I say this is essential music where an electric prodigy tries her hand at what is ostensibly a percussive DJ tool built upon a charging motorik beat. Of course, for anyone remotely familiar with the artist’s output so far, what may sound like a snooze fest to some is in fact one of the most riveting and arguably influential dance music productions of the past seven years as I’m for one hard pressed to think of anything the cold be counted as an antecedent. Like the best ambient music, it’s hard to really recount what exactly happens over those thirteen minutes as the listener experiences the fusing of rhythm and sound at a cellular level. Few artists possess Dillon’s ear for detail while still being able to create the kinda groove that just don't quit.
Bonus Beat: BD's killer couplet of post-mnml/Villalobos technoid constructions with Call Super for Hessle.
You Speak What I Feel - My Good Friends Tell Me That (Boomkat Editions 2017)
You know in a movie or show when a character lets out a cry of frustration so great that the magic of editing makes it seems as if first a flock of birds was sent flying in response. Then it pans out to the city. And finally to our third rock from the sun. Well, such was the decibel I reached when I read about that for its third entry in its stupid expensive 12x12 series, Boomkat would be issuing a 2002 recording between SND and Therre Thaemlitz in her NYC studio. Oopsee, just had another orgasm by simply typing those words out. Where the excitement around the preceding Dillon twenty-buck single-sided platter was palpable, I don't know if I've ever talked to someone about this release. And I won't lie, I was a bit...not sure what to make of it on first listen as it serves as something of a missing touchstone of microhouse. Built around a Mark Fell moebius strip of a melody, all staggered thirds unto eternity, the beat is decidedly more clunky with the hi-hat providing the enterprising DJ with their lighthouse in the storm. And truly, it wasn't until I started mixing this record with others that it became one of the year's favorites because trust me, nothing can quite prepare you for the what-the-fuck quality that this track has when emerging without warning.
When regularly buying electronic music twelves, you start to really value those that approach the format more like a coherent EP instead of a collection of tracks. The Role of Purity is a largely “ambient” affair in that there is scarecely a percussive beat to be found amongst its four immersive and hypnotic tracks. But this isn’t the passive, pacifying ambient that you can simply put on as background music--though it will cover your room in a crystalline encasing whether you’re paying attention or not. No, these are four compositions that take the synth stylings of Krautrock and inject it with an abstractly fourth world sensibility to craft a message, a meaning both in each piece and throug the sheer force of the EP itself. I’d been sleeping on Sapphire Slows until finding this killer in the discount bin, another apparent victim of its (totally awesome) cover art. Oh well, that’s why you’re here, right? To look through the cracks.
Ciel - Electrical Encounters (Peach Discs 2017)
Realize this one was on the RA list, but feel like it’s worth repeating in case you missed or avoided it there or elsewhere--not to mention, of the four records released by Shanti Celeste's new Peach Discs label. Ciel is Toronto’s Cindy Li, a monster DJ and producer who turned in the fourth entry on Shanti Celeste’s increasingly essential Peace Discs imprint. If you did go to RA already, then you might have heard that “electro is back.” I never knew it went away but seems a lot of people were fucking sleeping! Anyhoo, this is beguiling, nuanced electro of the highest order with two out-and-out bangers in the form of the title track and “Elevate (Go Mix)” on the flip. What’s perhaps more exciting is that, unlike a lot of the trad electro championed by DJ’s and publications alike, Li clearly understands the “future music” aspect of the genre and rather than rely on the same sounds and melodies, she seems to perhaps draw upon her own lived experience to craft something that feels shockingly--dare I say it--authentic, at least in terms of a meaningful artistic statement.
Emokid - Gqomtera EP (Gqom-Oh! 2017)
While I didn't see a ton of DJ's or live acts in 2017, when thinking back to the show that was the most enjoyable and memorable, one leaps out ahead of all others: experiencing Gqom stars Rudeboyz laying waste to my body, entirely at the mercy of their endlessly mutating rhythms. While I was too busy dancing my ass off, a friend later remarked that part of what made the set so live was that the different members used a mic in which they would speak phrases, make rhythmic noise, and augment the tracks past the typical doom-and-gloom that can at times get a bit much. And while most of the new Gqom I've heard in 2017 hasn't even been on the same level as that special party, this long-anticipated album by The Sound of Durban stand-out Emo Kid. Blame it on the name, but for a genre that leans more on ominous dread than heartfelt feeling, Emo Kid is something of the Gqom romantic, weaving patient, yearning intrumentals that just are begging to have a crying pop star run wild over 'em. His is also a more rhythmically varied and flexible brand of Gqom that again calls to mind that fateful nice with the 'Boyz. While the genre might be boasting digital color yet, Emokid gives the black-and-white mood a technicolor makeover.
Djrum - Broken Glass Arches (R&S 2017)
While one can't seem to go a day without reading about the renewed interest in breaks of the hardcore and jungle variety, rarely do they sound like anything more than a trick or novelty. Following his killer split on Illian Tapes from last year, dubstep vet and post-nuum operator Djrum continues to develop his rhythmically intricate and melodically pleasant sound, making the move from long-time home 2nd Drop to Belgian powerhouse R&S. Having positively wowed with his massive split on Illian Tapes last year, the producer leaned into his taste for ambient and jungle on this gorgeous EP that makes for a perfect companion with the ace Skee Mask transmission also on Illian this year.
Kyle Hall - Eutrophia Seven (Wild Oats 2017)
While I've been fucking with Kyle's weirdo brand ov dance music since the days of "Plastik Ambash," 2017 was the year I started caring again. Or rather, his music felt recharged and armed with a new sensibility--one that journalists have lazily referred to as his "hippy phase." As a recovering Phish and jamband fan, I can assure you, ain't no hippy out there making music that bangs like this, let alone can create a dance music seven-inch that warrants this much attention. Although "Teacher Plant" is the obvious choice for dancefloor banger with its swinging drums and soaring, Bernie Worrell-indebted synth moves, "D.S.P. (Dear Sweet Potato)" on the flip is my choice cut for its meditative broken beat that is slowed down to a creep. Taking the first half of its three minutes to find its sure footing, Hall mixes sitar-sounding melodic curlicues and G-Funk synth squiggles to create a serious house music chinstroker.
Duckett - Gannets for Guano / LOFT - Three Settlements Four Ways (Wisdom Teeth 2017)
In which Wisdom Teeth, the label run by UK producers Facta and K-Lone, takes the initial promise of their first five records and start to find a coherent yet always-expanding voice for their still-growing label. Following up on his ace four-tracker for Galdoors, Duckett continued to move past house into something all his own, drawing upon fourth world ideas and pairing weightless garage with his own singular melodic sensibility, like on the highly mixable "Black Sheep." Elsewhere, the meobius strip structure of "She Answered Back Through No Medium" sounds like the "tech steppers" Harwax loves to identity as IDM melodies meets circular drum programming.
Speaking of "tech step," while I don't know what that terms exactly means, it's perfect to describe LOFT's sound, which evokes the weirder side of mnml and UK techno while also sounding entirely other. The words it uses are familiar and commonly understood ones. And yet, the sentences and paragraphs they form are open to endless interpretations and impressions; styles and concepts that might not necessarily be present in the mix can seem painfully obvious on the first listen and seem wildly misplaced on the fifth. Where artists like Ricardo Villalobos were able to exercise their wackiest sound designer impulses and keep a dance floor moving due to the sturdy durability of a 4X4 kick, LOFT achieves a similar rhythmic momentum and steadiness through a bed of nails comprised of left turns and everything that was thrown at the wall and stuck. It's a dance music founded on a heterogeneity of references and influences that are found in the tunes themselves and are materialized through an alchemic process that we can hear coming into form. The four tracks on hand are equivalent to a series of state or phase changes, be it ice turning to water or water turning to steam; LOFT exhibits a similarly environmental mentality, his creations miniature ecosystems in their own right, teeming with endless life and possibilities.
Unlike previous extended players, there's a sense of thematic cohesion that elevates Lukid's third release for his own Glum imprint into a unified statement. That each track is so distinct is style and structure while retaining an unmistakable sonic signature is a real development for the producer and confirms the suspicion that he wouldn't have revived the project without a genuine artistic motive. After all, as he's made clear through his work for Trilogy as well as for Werk, he can make club-ready bangers with the same ease he can churn out a solid long player's amount of head-nodding and dome-scratching compositions and trackier twelve-inch fare. On Twisted Blood, we get a producer who's reached a new and exciting stage in his career, one that just might be considered with the same amount of consideration and reverence as is given his peer in Actress. For while Blair has never quite demonstrated the conceptual acumen of the Werk Discs founder, his exploratory mindset has given him much with which to sharpen his own distinct voice through inhabiting so many others' ideas and legacies; he's eschewed crafting genre meta-narratives in favor of developing a genre-hopping mentality that move right past pastiche into a referential zone of innovation and creation. While the past ten years has seen an artist coming into his own again and again, here's hoping that the next decade sees listeners starting to catch up to the many wonders Lukid has to offer.
Tyler Dancer - Hercobulus (Don't Be Afraid 2017)
To the surprise of no one that keeps close ,tabs on the dance music world, this was the year that Semtek’s rock-solid Don’t Be Afraid imprint went supernova. Having already released two of the year’s best dance music full-length’s in the form of Karen Dwyer’s Rembo and Differ-Ent’s (DJ Bone) phenomenal It’s Good To Be Differ-Ent before the summer was even over, this fall saw the label slip into overdrive, releasing an average of one record every two weeks. And while there is plenty to sink one’s teeth into, the track that has become a staple of Zurkonic HQ is Tyler Dancer’s chiptune-indebted techno stomper that takes up the A side on his debut twelve. Riding in on an undulating 8-bit minor bassline, “Hecobulus” is a masterclass in melodic texturing as Dancer turns in a handful of memorable lines that sound as if they’re tuned a half-step off-key, keeping listeners and dancers on their toes throughout its eight-minute run time. We’ll be watching Tyler’s and DBA’s moves closely in the new year.
Shinichi Atobe - Regret, First Plate 3 (DDS 2017)
Man, the return of Shinichi Atobe following a thirteen-year silence has been totally awesome. Like, what other word would you use to describe the producer responsible for the shimmering kiss-off that was the last Chain Reaction release, only to return out of the blue thanks to the Demdike guys and start releasing a combination of archive and new tracks? It's fucking awesome! And when "Regret" first started making the rounds last spring, for a second it felt like Atobe might attain Ibiza-levels of fame if he were to just start cranking out sublime pop house--or at least his take on it. Built around a simple four-note progression using a synth patch that provides a sonic analog of a glimmer, its nine minutes never feel like enough as a piano melody plods across Atobe's exquisite beat. And though the album might not have received the regular play I thought it would, both "Regret" and "First Plate 3" made countless cameos in a number of home mixes and thus it deserves equal shine. It was actually recorded around the time Ship-Scope was released and pressed into three dubplates, "First Plate 3." While the other two are certainly lovely, "3" is leadenly transcendent.
Bruce - Before You Sleep/In Line/Sweat (Hemlock 2017)
It's funny what reading something you've though about in a music publication will make you totall rethink your position. I had pretty much written a piece reviewing the other Hemlock releases, six in total, that I had missed and lauding the label's fine return to form. And then I saw them ranked in the sixth spot when reading Fact Mag's top ten labels of the year and I started to get a bit perturbed. While Fact has certain big-upped Timedance in the past, to laud a label that basically recharged itself off the A&R work of labels like Hessle, Punch Drunk, and Ancient Monarchy struck me as something of a pyrrhic victor for a label that back in it the late 00s and early 10s had its finger on the pulse of the avant-bass scene, if you will. Nonetheless, of the six EP's Jack Dunning's label relesed this year, five of them are absolute belters and while the Parris deservedly got a bit of press, it was Bruce's three-tracker at the start of the year that still has me scratching my chin. Comprised of three pieces all between four and five minutes in length, "Before Your Sleep" and "In Line" both ride quasi-industrial grooves as steal anvils and hissing pipes create a Suicide-like restless pulse that at once doesn't do a whole lot while doing it all. The barren thump of "Before Your Sleep" at least gives the listener something of a payoff in the maudlin piano melody that take center stage for the track's third act. "In Line" is the oddest offer on hand, a steady sixteenth-note pulse charting an amorphous orbit around a ever-morphing sonic sculpture. It's elegant, it's singular, it's gorgeous. But is it techno?
Beneath - Seeus (Hotline 2017)
So….this is something a bit different. In terms of Beneath’s productions, for as menacing as his bass-focused construction can be, this looks beyond the post-dubstep axis to add something new to his repertoire. Following an extended beatless intro that establishes a menacing atmosphere, a looping, unnerving vocal sample--"You probably see us us, but you don’t see us”--gradually comes into focus before a thunderous tom-heavy rhythm that sounds like it was played by the drumline from "Tusk" comes out, gun fingers in tow. From there, Beneath engages in a game of give-and-take, supplanting the percussive bombast with a solitary kick drum, opening up the track's athmopshere and swallowing the listener.
BONUS BEAT: Gerrit Hoekema - "Televisiewereld"
So I get it's a bit ironic that I would save what was undoubtedly my favorite song I discovered in 2017 until the very end. But the fact that it's a track that's nearly thirty years old, though it certainly doesn't sound like it, and this is a list of tracks released in 2017 made me hesitant to put it way at the top where it belongs in my heart. This track came into my life via the shockingly fantastic Young Marco-curated installment of the Dekmantel Selectors Series, a collection of tracks I've compared to having twelve cherries on top, the type of songs that serve to kick off, be a highlight in, or close out a mix in the finest of styles. Of course, there's a fine line between simply trying to emulate Marco's style and seeking to make these tracks your own as a DJ. Unfortunately, the way 'selector culture' seems to be going, we often end up with far more instances of the former. Still, for as dismissive as I was of this series and as underwhelmed as I've been with the other inclusions, Young Marco knocked it out of the park by simply presenting a twelve-track summation of his 'DJ voice.'