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Hyperspecific: The Best Electronic Music Of 2023
Jaša Bužinel , December 15th, 2023 12:07

Our dance music editor surveys the most exciting and the dullest trends of 2023, and presents his top ten electronic records from the past twelve months

Aunty Rayzor, photo by Michelle Isinbaeva

Dance music has long been characterised by a collective need to push boundaries, to outdo the competition and push things to the next level. But if I look back at the past five years, it seems as though innovation has somewhat halted following the spread of hyperpop-adjacent and post-club aesthetics, and more recent Middle Eastern and Latin-influenced club sounds.

Some might argue we’ve reached a stalemate when it comes to ‘futuristic’ music, but I like to remember one of Mark Fisher’s takes – that the late 20th century was an extraordinary period in cultural history, where we witnessed an acceleration in the production of new ideas and cultural forms, an excess of creativity. Maybe we’ve reached a point where we must accept that dance music, like rock and jazz before, has become so monolithic that you can only find true innovation in its darkest corners. I can’t say I’ve rinsed many records which I’d dare define as groundbreaking this year. Sure, there’s been a lot of exciting new music, albums by Abadir, Rian Treanor & Ocen James, MC Yallah, Loppy B, Sam Goku, Rezzett, Rắn Cạp Đuôi Collective and Al Wootton, to name a few. But I could hardly sell them as "the sound of the future".

Globally, dance music reached its all time high in popularity in 2023, but also gradually continued its demise in terms of cultural relevance, giving way to influencer culture, gaming and other industries. My views on these topics are rather biassed, though, as I look at the dwindling impact of dance music journalism and established mix series from a limited social media bubble mostly informed by millennial circles. When considering platforms like TikTok, things get rather more complex; a wider world is revealed. Think of the phonk phenomenon, or the latest "baile funk renaissance" via artists like DJ Ramon Sucesso – viral TikTok videos brought these sounds to entirely new audiences. Sucesso’s story is just one example of an ongoing process of decentralisation, and these trends are to be cherished as they lessen the influence of Eurocentrism, and loosen the grip of established dance music institutions.

Without strong dance music journalism however, all these phenomena and subcultures, distributed on social media, exist only as algorithm-driven content, lacking context and history, and I hope to see a new interest in "positive gatekeeping" in 2024, whatever the format. Currently, it feels as if there’s no centre to hold on to. Maybe this is for the better, and dance music has always been compartmentalised, but I feel the multiverse has now become so vast that even seasoned writers are having a hard time to get to grips with it. Fortunately, there are still people out there who are doing their best to make sense – Shawn Reynaldo’s book First Floor Volume 1 and DeForrest Brown Jr.'s book Assembling A Black Counter Culture for instance.

In the past year, the gap between mainstream and "underground" has shrinked even further. Overmono’s rise to global stardom following the release of their debut album Good Lies encapsulates this beautifully. Pangea’s ‘Installation’, one of the biggest tunes of 2023, also represents a similarly inspiring example. On the contrary, Peggy Gou’s "song of summer 2023", out on XL Recordings, was mostly received as a negative example of this trend. The hackneyed ‘(It Goes Like) Nanana’ was held up as a symbol for everything wrong by some more opinionated fans, and judging the backlash on social media, many long-standing fans of the acclaimed label weren’t too keen either.

A prominent topic this summer was also the the Four Tet, Skrillex and Fred Again… performance at Coachella. While some criticised the saturation of media coverage, for me it was refreshing to see a quasi-rebirth of a mainstream artist like Skrillex at the same time as Four Tet’s reaching peak popularity. While I think much of Fred Again…’s output in 2023 was largely forgettable, he’s at least useful as a gateway for youngsters to dig a little deeper, the same way Skrillex was for me a decade ago.

Observing poptimisim’s ongoing siege on the underground, I also realised I miss the pretentiousness of the mid 2010s. I hope for a resurgence of obscurity-seeking selectors. One thing I’ve noticed this year is that it’s become harder for long-established DJs to continue standing out as the bar keeps getting higher. It might also be symptomatic tht I often heard the same tracks being played from mainstage to darkroom DJs. This might herald a return of big tunes, but it also indicates laziness. Ultimately, though, I’m sure that Venezuelan raptor house pioneer DJ Babatr, whose story is one of the most inspiring in recent memory, was deservedly one of the most played procedures of the year.

And then, there’s the edits debate. I personally have experienced way too cheeky pop edits being played one after another in the club, mostly without real intent, and over summer the these sparked a lively discussion on Techno Twitter. The conclusion seemed to be that edits are OK as long as the timing and place are right. Much ado about nothing! Meanwhile the uptempo industrial/hard techno army marched on unhalted, continuing its existence in an apparently parallel universe. They were detached even from ‘classic’ techno, which remained relatively lacklustre as a new nostalgia cycle prompted a renaissance in the loopy, minimalist, uplifting tribal techno and hard groove-based aesthetics from the turn of the millennium. I also learnt from practice that a house music event in 2023 means progressive trance and progressive house records. Questionable pop edits aside, there’s also been more acceptance for saccharine stuff in that sphere – like German DJ Marie Montexier dropping Duke’s ‘So In Love With You’ at Butik Festival and tearing the roof down.

I believe 2023 will go down as the year when the post-Covid afterglow, need for speed and reckless abandon finally started to evaporate, but nothing else yet emerged to fully fill the void. While it’d be nice to be presented with some truly disruptive dance music in the near future, I think we should also grow accustomed to slow-paced aesthetic developments rather than sudden bursts of stylistic innovation. Just like jazz buffs and rockers had to come to terms with their scenes, it’s hard to imagine a different fate for fans of "futuristic electronic music".

I picked the albums below based on a single criteria – repeated listens. They might not be the most cutting-edge releases of the year, but they’ve provided many pleasurable sessions – no fillers, unnecessary noodling or musings, just pure fire from beginning to end.

Tzusing – 绿帽 Green Hat

The Malaysian-born DJ/producer found the title for his sophomore LP in a story from Mediaeval China, using a tale of infidelity as the basis for his reflection on Chinese "patriarchal heteronormativity". Don’t expect any meditative vibes, though. Tzusing delivers one of the mightiest electronic music records of the year, fleshing out his hi-tek EBM-meets-UK bass-meets-post-club-extravaganza trajectory which culminates in the earthshaking closer ‘Residual Stress’.

Wata Igarashi – Agartha

If you’re a sucker for deep psychedelic stuff from the likes of Donato Dozzy, Marcho Shuttle and Valentino Mora, a disciple of 70s elektronische musik and synth wizards in the Vangelis mould, and also a fan of subaquatic/space colonisation mythologies in the Drexcian tradition, Agartha should sit on your top shelf. While a bit "retro" in scope, Agartha is a masterful imaginary soundtrack of kosmiche techno that takes you on a mind-alternating sonic trip.

3Phaz – Ends Meet

Everytime I hear a 3Phaz production in the club, it obscures and belittles everything I heard prior to that point. The Cairo native’s sophomore album, an ‘all killer, no filler’ amalgamation of surgically precise bass-grime-techno mutations through a Shaabi and Mahraganat lens, arguably delivers the most impactful and deadly bass music release you’ll hear this year.

33EMYBW – Holes of Sinian

A Chinese underground luminary further expands on her avant-garde sonics on her fourth full length, forging a conceptual frame around topics such as palaeontology and speculative evolutionary history. The album boasts 12 intricately connected head-turners consisting of outlandish pseudo-folk melodic tropes, fluctuating percussive patterns of transglobal origins, high-pitched cyborgian voices, synthesised chirps, rattles, lisps and crackles. Peak forward-thinking club experimentalism!

Deena Abdelwahed – Jbal Rrsas جبل الرصاص

On her second album, Tunisian electronic music modernist steps further away from club functionalism, presenting extended percussion-driven, Mahraganat-indebted compositions transfixed by her ceremonial chants, lurking drones and razorblade synths. Abdelwahed has developed an enthralling sonic language that emerges from her past post-club trajectories. Instead of opting for the trendier hyperdigital aesthetic, the patina of her music is much closer to "industrial" styles, resulting in a unique strain of acerbic electronic psychedelia.

Aunty Rayzor – Viral Wreckage
(Hakuna Kulala)

Closing tracks ‘Murder’ and ‘Sise’ from the Nigerian rapper's remarkable debut are two of the most lethal releases I’ve heard all year. But Viral Wreckage stands out as a whole, boasting brilliant production by a group of prolific producers from the Nyege Nyege/Hakuna Kulala stable. It brings forth an eclectic selection of in-your-face tunes (from Afrobeats, dembow, Afrogrime and baile riddims to nu-highighlife, R&B and club sounds) that revolve around her forceful delivery in the Yoruba language, indebted as much to Western icons like Cardi B and M.I.A. as peers like MC Yallah.

Upsammy – Germ in a Population of Buildings

With its irregular, ever-transforming rhythmic pulses, warped synth "melodies" and a plethora of synthesised sounds with a palpable quality (glass, metals, plastics, rubbers), Upsammy’s second album is a treat for your auditory synapses, one of the finest examples of pointillistic IDM this year – clinical, but not soulless. You’ll come across plenty of pleasing passages à la Aleksi Perälä’s cosmic minimalism, but mostly you’ll find yourself immersed in a complex sonic architecture defined by fluid arrangements, not unlike those from Objekt’s Cocoon Crush.

DJ Danifox – Ansiedade

The young Portuguese talent’s debut is one of those albums that keeps on getting better with each listen. A gem of dancefloor blues that channels jazzy soulfulness in the Theo Parrish mould, it evokes the image of a dreamed-up ensemble performing in a darklit, smoke-filled room. The electroacoustic patina of its various instruments, nuanced piano chords and guitar licks, skeletal bass grooves, sensual vocals, and vibrant percussive timbres conjure a saudade-informed cloudland.

Simo Cell – Cuspide Des Sirènes
(TEMƎT Music)

No doubt Simo Cell’s magnum opus, Cuspide Des Sirènes is a worldbuilding, video game-inspired, conceptually rounded, magic-infused album that daringly transcends his past club music endeavours. The seamless transitions between tracks that function as "levels" calls for interrupted listens from beginning to end. Production-wise, think of ultra-HD bass music with outrageous sound design, sprinkled with hints of trap, drill, hip hop and a dash of emo sensibility.

Kassem Mosse – Workshop 32

Maybe it’s because I associate it with my comfort zone (I’d obsess over outsider house during my uni years), but the veteran German producer’s double LP stands above anything else from the "traditional" house/techno sphere. Traces of his signature dustiness might be there, but the production is crystal-clear, characterised by delicate textures and deep rhythms. Floaty, skeletal, repetitive and groove-driven, Workshop 32 is a record that I can play through and through – proper early morning/afterparty material that lets you lose yourself in its nooks and crannies.