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Hyperspecific: 2018's Best Electronic Music
Christian Eede , December 19th, 2018 17:13

Christian Eede's final Hyperspecific column of 2018 sees him offer up an unordered, non-exhaustive round up some of the year's best electronic music, featuring rave music from Eris Drew (pictured), kick drum-less techno from Barker and dancehall mutations from Simo Cell and Low Jack

How do you sum up a year in electronic music in one article? The simple answer: you don’t. While going back through all of the new music I’ve listened to, discovered and downloaded this year, it naturally became immediately obvious that it would be an impossible feat to cover everything that has caught my attention over the last 12 months. It would be difficult in any year, but 2018 felt like a particularly strong year for releases and mixes in this scene.

Therefore, the selection below - an unordered mishmash of releases and mixes - certainly isn’t an exhaustive round-up of dance music in 2018. Some of the below have featured in the column at some point this year, while others - for one reason or another - haven’t. I’ll never be the kind of person that enjoys assigning number ratings to music, and when it comes to year-end list-making season, I understand this particular aspect of it can feel a little crushing to people involved in the scene with regards to ranking some over others. The focus here at tQ, when we share our year-end lists of the best albums and reissues, compilations, mixes and “etc” is to try to introduce people to something they might have missed or simply might not find otherwise. While there are some well-known names below, I hope that might extend to the below, and it’s with that in mind that I put together this end-of-year Hyperspecific selection.

There’s plenty I will have missed and I don’t want the below to come across as my absolute round-up of the year’s best music. There are lots more great records and mixes I’d love to mention, but word counts exist for a reason, and a number of the best electronic music albums of 2018 (Objekt’s Cocoon Crush, SOPHIE’s Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, Blawan’s Wet Will Always Dry, Blocks & Escher’s Something Blue, Skee Mask’s Compro, Marie Davidson’s Working Class Woman, Bruce’s Sonder Somatic) have come from already reliable corners of the scene, so you don’t need me to remind you of those here. Fortunately, Avalon Emerson and some web developer friends have launched an excellent website to help me point towards more glorious music from this year that I don’t have the space to mention below though.

Buy Music Club is a site which allows users to create their own playlists from music that is available on Bandcamp. “DJs and many dance music fans don’t just casually stream music — we buy it, too,” Emerson says. “And since Bandcamp is currently one of the most equitable music vendors online, discovering and buying music there is one of the best ways to support independent artists and record labels.” She’s shared her own list, alongside a number of other DJs and producers, including Anastasia Kristensen, Peach, Ben UFO, Pearson Sound and Mama Snake. You can check my list of favourites (again not exhaustive) picked from music that is available on Bandcamp here, with handy links to buy the records or digital files if something takes your fancy. Continue below for some more in-depth picks of this year’s best electronic music.

Slikback - Lasakaneku
(Hakuna Kulala)

2018 felt like a breakout year for a number of acts associated with Uganda’s Nyege Nyege festival and record label. Key member of the crew behind both ventures Kampire enjoyed a busying touring schedule taking various strains of dance music from across East Africa around the world via her DJ sets at festivals like Sonár and Unsound. Another DJ and producer associated with the collective is Kenya-born Slikback who also played at Unsound - you can hear his excellent set from the festival here. His debut release came via a new Nyege Nyege sub-label called Hakuna Kuala, which was launched in partnership with him and two other vital producers based in Kampala, Zilla and Sapienz.

Lasakeneku folds in club music influences from around the world, moving from mutant footwork (‘Acid’) through to stripped-back, halftime drum cuts (‘Bantu Zen’, ‘Ascension’). ‘Just I’ is a swaggering modern take on dancehall complete with twisted, hollering vocal samples and a very pleasing bassline, while closer ‘Venom’ sees Slikback channeling the juke of Chicago with shifting drum patterns and snarling bass. The producer also turned up on PAN’s recent remix EP for STILL’s 2017 release I, which is another record sure worth checking out for those digging the slower cuts on Lasakaneku.

Barker - Debiasing
(Ostgut Ton)

One of 2018’s best techno records lacked one usual component of the sound: the kick drum. Debiasing, Barker’s solo debut on Ostgut Ton, is made up of four tracks that are still very much primed for dancefloors despite the lack of kicks. Rich, propulsive synths, found across each track, roll along with the kind of 4x4 grid that make all four cuts easy to slip into a set. Opener ‘Cascade Effect’ is built around distant choral-like harmonies and lush synths that simmer and swell, while ‘Look How Hard I’ve Tried’ offers swung, trance-y synths primed for euphoric dancefloor peaks. Much of Debiasing retains the kind of low-end bassweight you might expect to come from the drums save for ‘When Prophecy Fails’. Cruising along at 145 BPM, its the EP’s most stripped-back offering, centring around dazzling arpeggios.

Not only was Debiasing one of the year’s best ‘dance music’ records, it also partly inspired one of the year’s best mixes: Objekt’s RA.650. Diving into his ‘No-kick rollers’ Rekordbox playlist for an hour, the DJ and producer frequently works across three decks at once through the mix to create the kind of tension and release that might usually come more naturally from the presence of kick drums. “It's a more challenging listen and less obviously ‘party’ than other mixes I've done, and it gets quite sparse at some points and intense at others, he told Resident Advisor in an interview accompanying the mix. Umfang’s gnarly, lo-fi ‘Symbolic Use Of Light’ giving way to the airy majesty of Barker’s ‘Cascade Effect’ in the mix’s climax is one of a number of shining moments in the set.

upsammy - Another Place EP
(Nous’klaer Audio)

upsammy’s talent as a DJ and producer shone through in 2018. As a frequent guest at Amsterdam’s De School, she can often be found playing curio IDM cuts at 90 BPM and murky drum & bass, steadfastly sticking to her preferred sound no matter who she might be warming up at the club. A mix for Rotterdam’s BAR club, shared earlier this year and available to listen to here, is a fine display of this side of her DJ sets. In addition to her DJ activity though, she also put out three excellent records in 2018.

Words R Inert, on Die Orakel, gave us her take on electro, while the two tracks featured on the Whities-released split record Blue 03 had more in common with the bass-heavy UK techno mutations of labels like Timedance and Wisdom Teeth. The first of her three 2018 releases, on Dutch label Nous’klaer Audio, saw the producer alternate between ambient techno in ‘Zona’, breaks-y club rollers (’09-06’) and hazy downtempo jams (‘A Window’). The record’s crowning moment though is the brooding electro of ‘Another Place’ with its trance-y chords and slew of climatic cymbals. The understated ‘drop’ just before the four-minute mark that gives way to the crash of those cymbals is primed for peak-time dancefloor moments, but not cynically so.

Low Jack - Riddims du Lieu-dit
(Les Disques De La Bretagne)

Simo Cell - Party 5 Mix EP

It’s certainly not a new phenomenon but some of 2018’s best electronic music came from producers exploring the intersection between modern dance music and dancehall. Records from Black Zone One (a “club-friendly” incarnation on Black Zone Myth Chant), the aforementioned Slikback, Akito, TSVI and Jay Glass Dubs all loosely explored this sound in some way. Equiknoxx have also continued to explore this fusion in their work this year.

The best examples though come from records by Low Jack and Simo Cell. The former’s Riddims du Lieu-dit takes cues from classic digi-dancehall mutations by the likes of Kevin Martin and Mark Pritchard. ‘Light’ centres around full-bodied drums and a saxophone sample lifted from Lafayette Afro Rock Band’s 1972 track ‘Darkest Light’, while ‘Robert’ is pinned down by more moody melodies, but retains similarly heavily drums. Low Jack’s take on dancehall doesn’t stray too far away from the riddims that much of the scene’s prominent producers have turned out for decades.

Simo Cell’s Party 5 Mix, on the other hand, sees the French producers twist some of the genre’s conventions to suit his sound. Described on the cover as “a collection of tracks in the 90 BPM zone”, its five cuts have as much in common with dancehall as they do with the UK techno emerging most prominently from Bristol. ‘Uranium’ is one of the heavier cuts on offer, all metallic drums and mostly melody-free, while ‘The Terrible Effect Of Purple Drank’ folds in trap influences with its low-slung bassline and sluggish beats. ‘La Pulga’ is the producer’s take on reggaeton, its vocal sample and pummelling drums laced with attitude and serving as a reminder that dancefloor intensity doesn’t have to tally with reaching for higher tempos.

Kasper Marott - Keflavik
(Seilscheibenpfeiler Schallplatten Berlin)

After a 24-year break, Modeselektor relaunched their Seilscheibenpfeiler label at the start of 2018 with a re-release of its first and before then only record by Fundamental Knowledge & Dr. Rhythm. Since then, the duo have unleashed a trio of brilliant records referencing techno, acid house, dubstep and breakbeat from Lory D, Fadi Mohem, Nautiluss, Solid Blake and, most notably, Denmark’s Kasper Marott.

The title track on his first release for the label might just have been the most uplifting club track of the year. With its Italo-esque bassline, delicately plucked arpeggios and dizzyingly euphoric crescendos, it’s unashamedly built for ecstatic dancefloor moments, as I found out over the summer during Courtesy’s Boiler Room set on the final day of this year’s Dekmantel. With such heights reached on ‘Keflavik’, it’s hard for the rest of the record to follow such an act. ‘Megatu’, though, is a tender, bumping electro cut while ‘Microworld’ buries 808s under chirpy synths and gentle pads, rounding out a record that doesn’t puts a foot wrong.

Joy O - Cav Empt Tape / 81b / Transition 2 / Systems Align (with Ben Vince)

No doubt a well-established name by now, Joy O had a particularly strong year in 2018. A mixtape for Cav Empt, recorded in May and released a couple of months later, saw him showcase the depths of his tastes as he’s done previously for a Rush Hour cassette and Dekmantel’s podcast series. The Cav Empt tape sees the DJ and producer seamlessly blend a variety of music old and new - that early run of Suspect and Jesse James Solomon’s UK drill anthem ‘Son Of The Ends’ into Cocteau Twins’ ‘Watchlar’ into Alien Sex Fiend’s industrial-edged ‘Radiant City’ into a track from his own CO/R project is an immediate highlight. From there we’re treated to dancehall-esque sounds from Oakland’s Club Chai label and Nazar, sludgy acid from Richie Hawtin, Brazilian samba by Caetano Veloso and music from the likes of King Crimson, UB40, Batu and Joanne Robertson & Dean Blunt. The ease with which he puts it all together is truly a joy to listen to.

He also released some excellent records in 2018, via his own Hinge Finger imprint and, for the first time, through Hessle Audio. The Hinge Finger-released 81b is one of his best releases to date. Opener ‘Seed’ shies away from obvious ‘club banger’ tropes - a slow-burner, its murky synth line and swung drums eventually give way to a waspy, gunfinger-raising bassline. ‘Tennov6teen’ comes off like a beatless take on his 2017 track ‘Fuerza’ while ‘Sin Palta’, which has appeared as an unreleased cut in his DJ sets for the last couple of years, casts back to the crooning R&B samples of some of his earlier output. The record also sees him excel at slower tempos with ‘COYP’ - named so after his support for Crystal Palace F.C. - sharing similar ground to the dancehall and reggaeton of the previously mentioned Simo Cell and Low Jack records from this year. The closing title track is a bouncy 100 BPM chugger that’s content with simply gliding along on a satisfying bassline and laser-like synths.

Where 81b saw him refine the sound he’s been developing for a number of years, his first record for Hessle Audio - a collaboration with London-based saxophonist Ben Vince - was something quite different. ‘Systems Align’ is an intensely driving techno cut that pairs frenzied synths with Vince’s wailing sax, while ‘Transition 2’ is more groove-based and ecstatic as Vince’s airier sax works alongside Joy O’s gentle bassline. “I didn’t want them just to sound like house or techno tracks with some added saxophone,” he told me when I interviewed him and Vince earlier this year. Both tracks achieve a perfect harmony of two musicians from quite different worlds working completely in sync.

Eris Drew mixes

Having spent many years hailed as an essential figure in her base of Chicago and as a resident of the city's smartbar club, Eris Drew's breakthrough year came in 2018. She became a regular fixture on European club line-ups and beyond - and deservedly so - travelling around the world to share her shamanic, psychedelic interpretation of Midwest rave culture that is informed by a concept she calls “The Motherbeat”. She's as adept playing old US and UK rave records that she's been collecting since the '90s as she is playing brand new party-storming breakbeat cuts, and both aspects of her collection were represented impeccably via mixes for Resident Advisor and Mixmag.

Dropping at the very end of 2017, RA.604 sees Drew drop in field recordings of birds as well as an excerpt of John Cage’s ‘Radio Music’ over various blissful rave tracks, from the old (‘90s Bassbin Twins tracks and reissued Unit Moebius joints) to newer breakbeat-indebted cuts by producers such as Violet and Skee Mask released on labels like Ilian Tape and Super Rhythm Trax. Coming at the end of the summer, her contribution to Mixmag’s In Session series with the ‘Thundering Goddess Mix’ arrived accurately with the SoundCloud tag ‘Bangerz’. It saw her take a similar tack to her RA outing with up-to-date tracks from Yak and Luca Lozano sitting alongside hardcore and UK rave music from DJ Seduction and Leftfield. A lot of the music Drew plays might be indebted to the past but it never feels nostalgic, with her refreshingly optimistic philosophy rooted very much in creating special - and for some people healing - dancefloor moments in the here and now.

Below, you can find a further, more brief selection of standout 2018 releases and mixes.

De Leon - De Leon

“Gamelan and capoeira in dub,” reads the note from Mana accompanying this self-titled outing from the Aught label-afiiliated De Leon. The record’s six tracks offer field recording experimentations coupled with the kind of hypnotic rhythmic workouts that will no doubt appeal to fans of Burnt Friedman’s work.

Deena Abdelwahed - Khonnar
(Infiné Music)

The title of Deena Abdelwahed’s debut album is derived from an untranslatable Tunisian Arabic word which refers to taboo subjects and dark secrets, and the lyrics, which are also mostly sung in Tunisian Arabic, see Abdelwahed exploring subjects of inequality in her native casting a critical eye over the police state and gender inequality. 'Tawa' combines traditional instrumentation with club-ready drum machines while 'Fdiha' is a heavy-hitting chugger that calls to mind some of the slower output of the Night Slugs camp.

Steffi Grafs Innere Ruhe - Untitled
(The News Cycle)

It’s not known who exactly is behind this record which arrived in September with distribution by London record shop Low Company. Sitting somewhere between the far-out techno experimentations of Frieder Blume’s Σ project and the higher tempos of footwork, the record’s three tracks come off as a tougher, more future-facing take on the woozy melodic offerings of PLO Man’s Acting Press output.

X/319 - effekt

Speaking of Frider Blume, one might be forgiven for thinking effekt is a new record from his Σ moniker. Its blend of dazzling sci-fi-esque synths and double-time kicks make for one of the year’s most hypnotic techno records.

object blue - Do you plan to end a siege?
(Tobago Tracks)

Bridging the gap between techno and more experimental corners of club music, object blue’s debut, via Tobago Tracks, deployed a Cardi B sample to devastating effect on standout track ‘Act Like It Then’ while opener ‘Even In You’ is a more minimal, led by a simple kick pattern and complete with malfunctioning electronics and the producer’s own sampled gasps.

Various - Kulør 001

Breaking out with a new label of her own, Courtesy assembles some of Copenhagen’s best producers for this compilation of high-energy techno that rarely falls below the 140 BPM mark. Key names from Courtesy’s previous label Ectotherm - Rune Bagge, Schacke, Repro, IBON - all bring the party across the record which is a fine introduction to the richly melodic, trance-indebted sound that is emerging form the Danish capital.

Aboutface - Coordinates #1

A regular at Freerotation festival, Aboutface’s first record on his newly-launched Coordinates label offers hazy after-hours dancefloor music, folding in delicate, smudged melodies, bat colony recordings and mournful strings on the A-side. The B-side is more straightforwardly radiant and shares some sonic space with much of the output on the UntilMyHeartStops label as well as the back catalogue of fellow Freerotation regular Leif.

Beta Librae - Subspecies
(Allergy Season)

Beta Librae offered a fuller exploration of her hardware-driven techno jams on the Incienso-released long-player Sanguine Bond earlier this year, but this five-tracker on Allergy Season sees her push out further. Opener ‘Vegas Nerve’ combines dub rhythms with time-stretched MC samples, ‘Problem Solving Program’ has more in common with jungle and D&B ticking along at 90 or 180 BPM depending on how you count the rhythms and closer ‘Alert Tone’ uses hand drum percussion as a bed for smoky pads. The New York-based producer displays a chameleonic skill for exploring different tempos and textures in the context of club music.

GILA - Shed Skin Pt. 33
(Hunnaban Inc.)

I spent a lot of 2018 enjoying listening to and mixing slower records, and none scratched that itch more than this one from Denver’s GILA. ‘106 Slipper’, on the A-side, is a menacing chugger that alternates between hard kicks and a sludgy drum pattern that takes cues from modern hip-hop and trap production (no surprise given his affiliation with hip-hop collective Gorgeous Children). ‘Trench Cadence’, on the other side, carries over the screwface-inducing basslines of its counterpart, slowing the tempo further.

Mark - Crack Mix 217

Despite a pair of head-spinning, gentrification-baiting drum & bass records on Australian label A Colourful Storm (Integrier Dich Du Yuppie and Here Comes a Fucking Startup Campus) and a debut outing on Ostgut Ton’s more experimental Unterton offshot, it still feels like a lot of people are sleeping on Mark’s output. This mix for Crack offered an insight into his skill as a DJ. It’s a relentlessly deep and dark insight into the music he’s drawn to, starting out with an excerpt of murky, spoken word abstractions by Joe McPhee and Graham Lambkin before moving through expansive IDM cuts from Klute and Autechre and reduced techno from Barac and Cari Lekebusch. Proceedings come to a close via a wave of industrial-edged drum & bass from some of the scene’s leading lights such as Overlook, Felix K and Christoph de Babalon.

Fischerle - Groove 7

Wrocław’s outlines imprint describes itself as “a searching label” in the profile section of its Bandcamp page. Taking Chicago footwork as a starting point, a number of artists releasing through the label have set out to twist the genre’s 160 BPM framework in new directions. On Groove 7, sound artist Mateusz Wysocki, who produces as Fischerle, offers a pair of sparse, refined rhythmic workouts that each contort and gradually build over the course of 10 minutes. The end result sounds like Chicago footwork shot through with the experimental edges of raster-noton.

Martsman - Kerner
(Hidden Hawaii)

The final release on the now sadly defunct Hidden Hawaii label, Kerner was certainly one of the best drum & bass LPs of the year. ‘Klickoff’ with its zapping synths and halftime drums cropped up in the sets of DJs like Donato Dozzy, Objekt and upsammy, amongst others, while more reduced tracks such as ‘Gryphe’ and ‘Human Error’ impress thanks to their snarling low-end frequencies and snappy drums.