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Hyperspecific: The Best Dance Music Of 2021
Jaša Bužinel , December 13th, 2021 08:57

Jaša Bužinel shares his observations on certain trends in electronic dance music in 2021 and provides you with a list of 30 certified bangers for the holiday season

BADSISTA by Pedro Pinho

It makes me anxious when I try to wrap my head around all that has been going on in electronic dance music over the last 12 months. I try to imagine myself in a Foucauldian panopticon from which I can see all the events, trends, paradigm shifts and new ideas that have been getting traction in all the micro- and macro-scenes both global and digital. And then I simply laugh at the overreach. The truth is dance music is becoming more and more gargantuan, a chimerical industry made of incongruous parts, or rather scenes, that exist far apart from each other but somehow make up the same complex. It’s become practically impossible to see the whole picture even in specific genres like techno or electro, not to mention the whole industry. So instead of providing a complex and detailed overview, I will just share with you some of my observations based on my first year as tQ’s dance music columnist.

With only a single festival, three club nights, some concerts and two illegal raves visited, I can’t really say my year was musically eventful. My experiences of dance music mainly happened online. Arguably, there was less palpable, head-turning novelty this year than any year before. The rise to prominence of hard techno and hard trance – or hard dance if you will – continued at a fast pace. High-velocity industrial techno stompers reigned supreme at mainstream festivals like Exit in Serbia as well as illegal raves in Kiev, DJ sets at the popular internet radio HÖR Berlin and, as witnessed on my Instagram feed during quarantine, living room parties. I don’t have anything against this trend, but in all honesty it feels a bit retrograde, an all too obvious (re)cycling of dance music aesthetics that were popular two decades ago. (We’ve all heard of the 20 year rule when a younger generation "discovers" the music and trends of two decades past.) Though the popularity of speedy dance music may also have to do with the current socio-political situation and people’s dire need to let things out for which, admittedly, there’s hardly anything better than pummelling 150 BPM techno.

Similar rediscoveries took place in the realm of hyperpop, which gained even more prominence after Sophie’s untimely death back in January. But there’s a crucial difference between the current techno revivalism of late 90s industrial aesthetics and hyperpop's reclaiming of so-called “cheesy” dance music. It’s true that hyperpop artists have been taking inspiration from late 90s and early 00s dance music genres like Eurodance, nightcore, happy hardcore and trance, but their music usually has a completely contemporary character informed by post-internet aesthetics. There’s nothing retro or hackneyed to it. It’s interesting to observe how this 20 year cycle arguably takes on different shapes and forms – from more inspired ones like Harlecore to blatant pastiche like in the case of the dull remix of the Jam & Spoon classic ‘The Age Of Love’ (originally from 1990) by business techno mainstays Charlotte de Witte and Enrico Sangiuliano.

In the more progressive dance music realms in which I’m most interested, for example the mutant bass/techno from the UK and beyond, avant garde club scenes from Africa, Latin and Central America and Asia, and post club/deconstructed club activity from Central and Eastern Europe, we mostly witnessed slow but steady aesthetic developments that mainly manifested in even more sophisticated sound design approaches, more intricate rhythmic arrangements and post-genre aspirations. Other than that, I believe there are some crucial ideas that inform all these scenes at the moment: transculturalism, intercontinentalism, aesthetic hybridity, eclecticism and transhumanism, most notably in how they use thoroughly processed human voice as a kind of cyborgian incarnation of the human soul. There are three important collaborative LPs, all outstanding in their own right, that encapsulate these current aesthetic trajectories, and it’s meaningful that they all come from outside Europe and the USA: MELT by Kenyan visionary Slikback, TEWARI by veteran Japanese producer Scotch Rolex and the recently released full length debut GUETO ELEGANCE by Brazilian talent Badsista.

It’s hard to predict what 2022 will bring, hopefully at least the final credits to this pandemic, but I can speculate that when clubs finally reopen for good we will hardly get as much new exciting music as we did in the last year or two. It’s apparent that artists really made the most of their absence from clubs and festivals to produce as many great tracks as possible. If I had to choose one production unit that really excelled in providing gem after gem, it would have to be the London duo… Overmo-, well actually no, even though they really delivered some timeless tunes. It’s the anonymous London duo Two Shell that I had in mind. Their output on Livity Sound and Mainframe Audio and collaboration with Metrist was simply mesmerising, and their tracks ‘Home’, ‘Over U’ and ‘Magicx’ are my indisputed highlights of the year which I crave to hear in a club asap. And just as I was finishing this write up, they published another charming single to prove me right.

One thing that I pondered on at the end of 2020 – a true first world problem – was the fate of all the rollers that never got to see the dancefloor and remained forgotten on Bandcamp, USBs, hard disks and unplayed vinyl. Despite the ongoing pandemic, the situation was somewhat different in 2021 as promoters and organisers in the more well-vaccinated and more indifferent countries managed to organise some major festivals and run proper club nights, mostly between summer and autumn, meaning some tracks at least had the chance to get more play and become audiences' favourites. Since I already compiled a list of certified summer bangers back in June, I’ve decided to provide its sequel in this year’s final column. I’m pretty sure that you will have more than enough AOTY lists of every possible genre to dive into and I figured you may want to get dancing at the coming family gatherings and holiday dinners with friends, so I decided to provide you with a list of 2021 certified bangers.

The concept behind the list is simple—30 tracks from 2021 that I would love to experience through massive speakers if the pandemic suddenly ended tomorrow and we would all gather in the streets and avenues of every possible city to celebrate the end of an era.

30. Sully – ‘5ives’

Jungle was one of the genres that bloomed in 2021 with stunning fresh productions by both veterans and newcomers, and this new gen wobbler by UK producer Jack Stevens is one of this year’s creative peaks for sure.

29. Scratcha DVA – ‘Flex (:3LON & Scratchclart)’

A gorgeous synthesis of South African UK dance music tropes.

28. Koreless – ‘Shellshock’

A beatless, synth-heavy banger in the vein of Barker from Koreless’ long-awaited debut album Agor. Pure synthetic bliss.

27. DJ Swagger – ‘Noseblunt’
(Nerang Recordings)

This one really tempted me to return to skateboarding, but then I remembered that the last time I did it I broke my arm while doing a simple 50-50, so instead I'll stick to this tune and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 & 2.

26. Arca – ‘Incendio’
(XL Recordings)

Though I may not be Arca’s biggest fan, I really enjoy this monster of a track. Incendio puro!

25. CAPIUZ – ‘Bait Trap’

Tribal footwork extravaganza by the rising Italian producer.

24. Blixa – ‘Gizmo’
(Vista Recordings)

Percussive UK techno marked by mesmerising polyrhythms and an overall hypnotic atmosphere.

23. Bala Bala Boyz – ‘Vie Des Rois’
(More Time)

The London-Congolese collective delivers one of the most energetic vocal club tracks of the year in their signature Linglish (Lingala + English) flow.

22. Akiko Haruna – ‘Big Boy’

A jaw-dropping hyper-techno production composed of metallic techno beats, revving engine synths and Haruna’s psychedelic voice, ideal for future motorsports events.

21. Don Zilla - ‘Entambula’

One of the most foreboding dancefloor bombs of the year by cutting-edge Ugandan DJ/ producer and Hakuna Kulala-affiliate.

20. Despina – ‘Vitamin Party’
(Kindergarten Records)

Mutant bass mania from Brooklyn.

19. Yikes – ‘Coroboree’
(Midnight Elevator)

An epic breakbeat burner with a bassline so massive it would make even The Bug turn his head.

18. Slikback x Objekt – ‘Apex’

It’s hard to choose a favourite from Slikback’s collaborative LP, but I think this collab with Objekt is the most out-there of all. So much going on in just three and a half minutes.

17. Nikki Nair – ‘Want To You’

I haven’t reviewed any of the US producer’s recent output in my column, unfortunately, but I’ll make it up next year for sure as he just keeps on delivering. One of the most inspired breakbeat producers atm.

16. Parris – ‘Skater's World with Eden Samara’
(Can You Feel The Sun)

A beautiful take on skeletal UK funky percussion and noughties r&b vocals by the singular London producer, whose recent debut LP Soaked In Indigo Moonlight you should definitely check out. One of the most simple and uplifting dance tracks of the year.

15. Ayesha – ‘Ecstatic Descent’
(Scuffed Recordings)

The Scuffed crew had a lot of strong releases this year, but Ayesha’s entry is by far the most impressive. Be sure to check out all the other tracks from this superb EP.

14. LCY – ‘shhh’

I basically enjoyed everything LCY did over the past year, from streams and mixes to her releases, and to me this track really encapsulates her futuristic take on breakbeat science.

13. Barker – ‘E7​-​E5’
(Ostgut Ton)

I feel like this EP unjustly went under the radar even though it completely overshadows Barkers’ successful LP Utility (2019) in terms of ideas and production. A weapon of mass hypnosis.

12. Simo Cell – ‘YES.DJ’
(TEMƎT Music)

The French low-frequency maestro delivers some proper bassbin pressure on this one.

11. NKC – ‘Reticular Beats’
(Sea Cucumber)

This sounds rather punk to me, almost like a Beat The Bastards-era Exploited.

10. Air Max ‘97 – ‘Psyllium’

The shape of psy(trance) techno to come? I truly hope so.

9. Blawan – ‘Under Belly’

The weirdest as well as the most exciting track by Blawan in a while, which brings to mind the image of a group of Boston Dynamics' BigDogs hysterically guffawing at me.

8. Ploy – ‘Rayhana’
(Deaf Test)

The contagious vocal hook of this amped up, UK-powered, Baile funk-ish track will get stuck in your head for months to come. A true 2021 gem.

7. Batu – ‘Inner Space’

It’s impossible to pick a favourite from this excellent EP, one of this year’s UK techno highlights, but I guess ‘Inner Space’ really is the most epic and powerful track on here.

6. ZULI – ‘Keen Demag’

The same is true of ZULI’s ALL CAPS on which every single track is a deadly dancefloor weapon of the highest possible quality.

Overmono – ‘BBY’
(XL Recordings)

As mentioned above, the Russell brothers provided some of the most memorable dance music tracks of the year that we will forever be associated with this period in history. Minimalist and emotive, I think ‘BBY’ functions as a marvellous closer to this not so marvellous year.

4. Peder Mannerfelt – ‘Year Of The Rats’

Techno track of the year. Period.

3. Two Shell – ‘Home’

This one is quite obvious, innit. As put by one Youtube commentator: “genuinely life affirming”.

2. Aya – ‘The Only Solution I Have Found Is To Simply Jump Higher’

Though her debut LP is full of exciting ideas and breathtaking sound design, I believe this one really comes across as a kind of manifesto for possible new trajectories in dance music of the future.

1. Skee Mask – ‘Testo BC Mashup’
(Ilian Tape)

Track of the year from my personal AOTY. There’s almost a Christmas vibe to it that is hard to describe. At Catholic masses, they have this ritual when you shake hands with everyone around you as the Sign of Peace, saying, ‘Peace be with you’. I'm not Christian, but this track makes me wanna shake everybody’s hands and hug everyone I know, cherishing the moments that we have had together and sharing our hopes and fears for the future.

Bonus track:

Joy Orbison – ‘born slipping (w/ tyson)’
(XL Recordings)

I had to add this one as it’s probably the track that I would most like to hear on New Year’s eve while reflecting on the past year. A lovely, heart-warming house burner with a huge Joy O signature on top.