EDM’s economic bubble continued to float on throughout 2017, as upper-crust artists jetted between festivals, casinos and meet-cutes with celebrity vocalists. The “global market” rose again to $7.4 billion in 2017, and Forbes is still aggrandizing superstar DJs. But this year, the artistic action was not about bigness. With ever-splintering global scenes and styles, there was no dominant trend and that was a very good thing. The amount of fascinating electronic and/or dance music in 2017 was staggering – the thrilling dance-floor eccentricity of Lanark Artefax; the overwhelming orchestral ambience of Gas; the thumb-piano street jams of Sierra Leone’s Kondi Band; the riotous bedroom mash-ups of Nidia and plenty more.
Looking back to the instrumental hip-hop of DJ Shadow or to Massive Attack’s 2013 soundclash/stress party with filmmaker/counterhistorian Adam Curtis, Forest Swords’ Matthew Barnes soundtracks a blighted world trying to “find light at the end of the tunnel,” as he puts it in the notes to his second album. That tunnel is, by implication, dark and treacherous – metadata has won and we’ve surveilled ourselves to oblivion. Yet, Barnes creates a tightly composed narrative on Compassion that never descends into apocalyptic disarray. “Panic” sets the tone with a sample of soul singer Lou Johnson intoning “I feel something’s wrong” (from his 1964 Northern Soul fave “The Panic Is On”) amid sawing violins, chiming bells, tribal thwacks and grinding bass. “Exalter,” with its chopped choral samples and dubby creak seems to summon the rubble of post-Internet blight back to life. Barnes’ guitar lurks, feints and reverberates like a rusty sword pointing forward; and by penultimate track “Raw Language,” with its sweeping strings, choral exclamations and distorted sax wails (both vaguely Eastern and Eighties meditative), Compassion becomes one of 2017’s most redemptive pieces of music. C.A.
Sued, the vinyl label run by Berliner SW. and fellow producer SVN, defies easy genre categorization, easy conversation and easy discovery: Virtually all of the 12-inch singles they’ve released since 2011 eschew track titles entirely and aren’t released digitally. Thankfully SW.’s debut full-length saw wider release this year, allowing for a new audience to immerse themselves in his productions. The eleven untitled tracks on The Album brim to the bursting point with sparkling breaks and gurgling keys. SW. programs everything from 140 bpm whirlwinds to tropical drifts (complete with birdsong) to the kind of swinging drum figures that Max Roach would have made were he a Detroit deep house producer. A.B.
Never fitting neatly into the mold of, say, “ambient” or even “IDM,” Laurel Halo’s third studio album revels in stacking textures and structural elements, the Michigan artist unabashedly pushing her brand of dance music towards the new-music avant garde. Her voice features prominently, but never in any kind of sing-along way. Sometimes disembodied, plaintive phrases hang over coughing snares, shoegaze-y swirls and what sounds like a xylophone or maybe wind chimes. Other times, instrumental numbers creak and groan like an ominous, cinematic interlude. Probably the closest thing to a proper single is “Moontalk,” an uptempo, major-key outing that finds a sort of tropical, global-house vibe with Halo’s voice showing up as cooing incantations, chanted almost-choruses and far-away laughter. And is that the long-lost sound of circuits busy on a phone switchboard? A.C.
Berlin-based Brit Joe Seaton’s second full-length as Call Super is a giddy, buoyant, bewildering affair: tech-house but with the beats replaced with nerve tingles. Seaton’s exquisitely-shaped beats gurgle and fizz rather than thump, and melodic themes snake throughout the album with an ethereal jazz edge (provided by Seaton’s reed-playing father). Arpo feels at once hyperreal and wholly natural. A.B.
The cross-cultural style of DJ Python, the alter ego of New York’s Brian Piñeyro, is sometimes referred to as “deep reggaeton.” But this mellow, pensive album was embraced by the larger electronic music world, fully avoiding the ethnic stereotypes that often gets music with the tiniest inflection of tropical flair shunted off into the walls of “alt-Latin.” Pretty much only the outline of reggaeton remains in this new brew, with whispers of dembows holding up near-downtempo breaks and narcotized atmospherics. Tracks like “Yo Ran (Do)” and “Las Palmas” find the faintest pulse of island rhythms under washes of almost post-rock synth washes. Others, like “Q.E.P.D.” get deeper and dubbier, but never fully abandoning the hiccuping syncopation. A.C.
For a record that reached the Top 20 in the U.K., the debut full-length by this Belfast-born duo makes about zero concessions to mainstream house music. Group founders Andy Ferguson and Matt McBriar started their project as a music blog (originally called “Feel My Bicep”), and their resulting “proper” studio album is music nerd’s delight: touches of Nineties-style breakbeats (“Glue”), chillout-room ambient (“Vespa”), bits of broken beat (“Opal”) and some outer-space disco (“Rain”). Tying it all together is a slim, slick production sensibility and a minor-key mood. A.C.
The fifth album from Actress, a thought leader and trend-setter in experimental techno, is sleek, shiny and sometimes aggressively cold. Like the album cover of a metal hand nestled into a human one, AZD plays like mechanical ambient eventually giving way to more natural vibes. Sequenced like an interesting DJ set, tracks slowly build up in texture and pace, from the opening plinks and plonks of negative-space opuses like “Untitled 7,” before dance tracks like “X22RME” and “Runner.” Those are the closest things here to crunchy, spare tech-house for 2 a.m., AZD’s two winking nods to the main room before dragging listeners into the warren of quieter, creepier passages beyond. A.C.
There may be no more aptly named project in electronic music than German minimal techno pioneer Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas: shimmering, effervescent swirls of glistening ambient washes that waft and dissolve like vapor. Underneath, the gentle throb of a 4/4 kick drum bubbles with a barely perceptible pulse. On Narkopop, his fifth Gas album (and the first collection of new material under that name in 17 years), Voigt crafts clouds of cinematic-sounding cotton candy, like the strains of a symphony being played by an unseen orchestra, building and swelling to majestic movements (and occasional maelstroms) before serenely dissipating. Over the course of its 10 tracks, Narkopop weaves a spell of rapturous beauty. M.R.
A sly joker with a heart as mushy as an old drum pad, Swedish-born, Barcelona-based producer DJ Seinfeld is chief raconteur of the Internet-generated “lo-fi house” scene, the latest dance subgenre that most dance experts claim to hate. Despite his goofy name, DJ Seinfeld (so named because he binge-watched the TV show after a breakup) crafts irresistible tracks via Ableton software that pay homage to the crowd-pleasing debris of 1990s “deep house” or “tech-house” – distorted 808 snares, 909 kicks and hi-hats, 303 squibs, analog-disco filters, reverbed Philly Soul-ful samples. Then he adds piles of tape hiss and vinyl crackle. But the ineffable, magnetic-kinetic swirl of his debut album, on both bangers (“I Saw Her Kiss Him in Front of Me and I Was Like Wtf?”) and weepers (closing track “U,” which samples Bob Geldof speaking about the dissolution of his marriage), explodes mere nostalgia. C.A.
North Long Beach rapper Vince Staples, one of hip-hop’s most talented bards, delivers rhymes over sonic backdrops that resemble Burial’s alien soundtracks more than trap or boom-bap. Overseen by Yale undergrad Zack Sekoff, who cut his teeth in Los Angeles’ Low End Theory scene, Big Fish Theory was influenced by Detroit techno and U.K. garage; guest producers include the likes of Sophie, Flume and Motor City expat Jimmy Edgar. Staples sounds as haunted as ever, but on songs like “Crabs in a Bucket” and “BagBak” his words echo out from between skittish beats and skeletal synths, less club bangers than Blade Runner noodle-bar clangers. A radical leap forward, Big Fish Theory is an American hip-hop record like no other, with one foot in Ramona Park and the other squarely in the future. M.R.
Aarhus, Denmark has become a hotbed for endorphin-flooding club music thanks to the city’s mysterious 11-person Regelbau collective and its artist-run imprints. Across a few cassettes and singles released as DJ Sports, producer Milán Zaks has embodied that scene’s sound: crackling breakbeats, somersaulting drum ‘n’ bass, zoned-out downtempo and radiant deep house, all infused with the lush atmospherics redolent of a much warmer climate. Thanks to his breakout debut full-length album, Modern Species, it all comes together into an exquisite listen that harkens back to the golden days of the Nineties. A.B.
Until now, the visionary gifts of Alejandro “Arca” Ghersi have lain contorted alongside a gorgeously baffling, maze-like path. The Venezuelan composer-producer has worked at extremes, exploring pain and vulnerability by garbling musical signals and mangling syntaxes. On his self-titled third studio album, he’s still at it (one track is nothing but the sound of a bullwhip); but he’s also more surprisingly intimate, less an enigmatic virus fucking with your hard drive and more an aching sylph emanating from your keyboard. For one thing, he returns to his teen love of singing. Vocalizing boldly in Spanish and English, he lolls vowels in his throat or sends phrases gliding and howling across his tongue. Ghersi even tries to fit all his stylistic impulses and tics into pleasing pop structures – “Reverie” turns drunken strings and symphonic wheezes into a soundtrack-ready showstopper; and the gorgeously winsome “Desafio” swells majestically. C.A.
While American rap further explores the druggy recesses and third-generation abstractions of Atlanta trap, South London grime king Michael “Stormzy” Omari stomps into the cipher. Gang Signs‘ sophisticated sound, overseen by multi-instrumentalist and former Craig David guitarist Fraser T Smith, evokes a conflicted mise en scène – street and gospel, cutting and compassionate, brash and humble, indomitable and vulnerable. The darting woodwind riff and spare bass punctuation of “Shut Up” (co-produced by XTC) give the MC’s rolling flow a languid tension; the snare snap and strings of “Don’t Cry for Me” (by Wizzy Wow) urge on Stormzy’s regretful look at his Croydon home; single “Big for Your Boots” (by Sir Spyro) skips with glee; and the sinister slither of “First Things First” (by Mura Masa) frames a gruff confession – “Dark times, niggas dying in recession/You was fighting with your girl when I was fighting my depression.” C.A.
While Jamaican dancehall and its booming sound have informed every aspect of pop, hip-hop and R&B, the Kingston-based production duo of Gavin “Gavsborg” Blair and Jordan “Time Cow” Chung add much-needed heat to modern dance and bass music. Even without a fierce deejay atop their jagged riddims, the duo show that staggering thumps, cavernous negative space and the weirdest of noises can still make a club banger. Birdsong or Kola Champagne bubbles, UFO tractor beams or clacking tin cans, Equiknoxx know how to deploy weird noises to make deep space dancehall. A woozy, experimental ride. A.B.
Lisbon-born, Bordeaux-based DJ/bedroom producer Nídia Sukulbembe, formerly known as Nídia Minaj, is a prodigious avatar of batida, the latest mutation of sweat-beading-on-your-synths dance music pinballing out of Portugal and across the Afro-diaspora. Her second album’s title roughly translates as “Nídia is Bad, Nídia is Dope,” and opening track “Muihier Profissional” is a controlled rat-a-tat fanfare announcing her as all of the above. Frantically giddy like splintered reggaeton, Nidia’s syncopated bursts come at you fast, but so does her emotional core. On “I Miss My Ghetto” (specifically, Lisbon’s Vale De Amoreira neighborhood), she splashes a vocal hiccup across mournful piano chords and digitally scrambled congas to create an eerie, time-shift effect like Chicago footwork. Nídia’s ability to deftly fracture global dance styles into glowing postcards is her unique gift to the world. C.A.
On his second album under his dance-floor-oriented alter-ego Daphni, Canadian producer and DJ Dan Snaith (also known as Caribou) offers extended versions of songs he debuted earlier this year on his excellent Fabriclive mix. Where that collection featured 11 of these 12 songs in brief snippets (restlessly stitched together with Snaith’s edits of songs by Container, Jamire Williams, Luther Davis Group and Pheeroan Ak Laff), Joli Mai allows the tracks to stretch out and leisurely throw their hands into the air. The punch of live-sounding drums and shimmery synths fuel songs like “Poly” and “Carry On,” while vocal loops provide the hooks to stompers like “Xing Tian,” “Tin” and “Hey Drum.” M.R.
One of 2017’s most charming debuts was this collaboration between Sorie Kondi, a blind street musician from Sierra Leone’s capital city Freetown, and Milwaukee-raised producer Chief Boima, the son of Sierra Leonean immigrants. Kondi sings in Krio (Sierra Leone’s lingua franca) and plays lilting melodies on his namesake instrument, the kondi – a thumb piano that bounces and percolates with an irrepressible energy. Boima adds subtle beats, loops and synths (or occasionally horns, on “Geibai Gpanga Ne Gna”) to craft distinctive Afro-house tracks. Mesmerizing and irresistibly funky, Salone is a compelling addition to the global dance floor: Freetown and your ass will follow. M.R.
Of all the Chicago footwork architects from the frenetic genre’s first wave of worldwide exposure, Cornelius “Traxman” Ferguson has proven to be the hardest rocking – the most willing to make mincemeat of heavy metal riffs. His fifth-or-so album explores a new type of harshness thanks to tweaking the minimalist textures of vintage electronic music – “Tone Deaf” is like a pulsating sine wave turned into funky morse code, “Whop Line” is a piercing wobble sent howling and wiggling onto the dancefloor. Tracks like “Gone Girl” are a more familiar return to tweaking classic pop songs, but his stuttering work – presumably his quick fingers on an MPC – leaves busted-sounding glitches and skips. C.W.
Glaswegian producer Calum MacRae, a.k.a. Lanark Artefax, might have only released a handful of his alien techno tracks – a little over an hour of music since 2015, and this four-song EP serving as his total output for 2017. However, he’s already found his way into DJ sets from both Björk and Aphex Twin. His music – full of high-voltage shocks, bewildering sonic details and tempo-defying noises – connects the dizzyingly abstract IDM of early Nineties groups like Autechre with the crowd-pleasing boom-tick of modern architects like Rustie and Hudson Mohawke. But on this EP MacRae also shows off a highly attuned sensibility in finding the evocative, heart-stirring center of ambient music, as on the choir-like closer “Voices Near the Hypocentre.” A.B.
A dizzying, disorienting, delirious clatter of hyperreal, synthetic sounds. Rhythmically, Gary, Indiana-based producer Jerrilynn “Jlin” Patton creates polyrhythmic cyclones similar to the high-octane Chicago dance music known as “footwork,” but her textures are purely avant-garde, an airbrushed sound with buzzing thumb pianos, clipped vocal flickers and hi-definition virtual reality noise that wouldn’t sound out of place from experimental artists like Ryuichi Sakamoto, Oneohtrix Point Never, the PC Music crew or collaborator Holly Herndon. C.W.