In 2014, dance music continued its expansion, ignoring the boundaries that once divided regions, genres and fans. Duck Sauce added drops to doo-wop, Bunji Garlin used trance and trap to make his soca music hit even harder and Fatima Al Qadiri created an album of sonic dispatches from an imaginary China. EDM still ruled the fields, but even that opened up: Skrillex's Recess contained hip-hop and two-step and Bassnectar built pretty songs on bass blasts. From Big Freedia's New Orleans bounce to Basement Jaxx's warm house to Todd Terje's sonic pool parties: It's list time!
Is Dillon Francis an example of how EDM eats its young or a devious prankster winking all the way to his offshore bank account? Having graduated with degrees in Bro Wave Studies from the Mad Decent (Diplo) and OWSLA (Skrillex) labels, Francis has morphed from an exceptional eclectic into a meme-maiming scamp, his debut album attempting Fatboy Slim-style punchline pitchshifts. Money Sucks works best as a here's-what-to-expect guide for newbie ravers — there's the rumbling grind of "Get Low" (with DJ Snake), the bass-bombing disco-trance of "Set Me Free" (with Martin Garrix), the Daft Punky pop of "Drunk All the Time" and the anthemic theatrics of "Love in the Middle of a Firefight" (which features Brendan Urie of Panic! at the Disco). Be safe out there, kids! C.A.
After making a name for himself as a producer on Kanye West's noisy, seething Yeezus, Arca went mysterious and weird on Xen, a full-length debut suffused with ambient atmospheres and darkly hissing mist. Without words to get in the way, Arca — who lives in London after growing up in Venezuela and New York — plays with empty space and shapes drawn by bass, which hits heavy and reverberates. It's music that shivers and shudders, with lots of eerie synth sounds and beats that crinkle and crack. A.B.
As the Bug, London bass explorer Kevin Martin has always repped for dance music's West Indian roots, calling heavily on dancehall, ragga and its later electronic offshoots like trip-hop and dubstep. There's also the rough world of grime, too, and on Angels and Devils, the Bug guides listeners into all of them with a purpose. The first half — the "Angels" portion — mostly features collabs with female guest stars like Copeland, before easing into a churning, faster, more menacing vibe. By the conclusion, things are anxious and creepy (Death Grips show up), the Bug spinning an album-length narrative from some predominantly singles-length forms. A.C.
London duo Basement Jaxx have been making music longer than many kids standing in EDM festival fields have been alive. Their two-decade winning streak remains intact with this, their seventh studio album. Unlike previous effort, 2009's Zephyr, this 13-track LP stays unapologetically upbeat, full of celebratory sing-along anthems that lean heavily on R&B. Other stylistic flourishes — like the Spanish guitar flair of "Mermaid of Salinas" — only serve to further school youngins while getting them to the dancefloor. A.C.
English producer Lee Gamble gets down with all manner of experimentation while managing to sound like no one aside from himself. KOCH, one of many excellent 2014 releases from the fêted Pan label, has an exploratory sound that evokes fuzzy, foggy memories of dance music's underground past. Tracks like "Motor System" and "HMix" bang big enough for a frenzy in the club, with rumbling basslines and clacking bunker-techno drums; but just as often, this sprawling album hews toward crepuscular ambient music and the kinds of electronic fantasias made by suit-and-tie-wearing weirdoes in the Fifties and Sixties. A.B.
Lee Bannon came to attention as a hip-hop beatmaker with links to Joey Bada$$, but on Alternate/Endings the Cali-based producer comes off like a jungle DJ from the darkest and headiest years of London's storied mid-Nineties drum 'n' bass scene. His style is a bit more processed and tweaked around the edges, but Bannon remains faithful to the sound's all-over abstraction: beats that fly off on crazy vectors and ruffneck vocal adornments that make it clear that more than just empty-headed dancing is the subject at hand. A.B.
Quack is what happens when two of the smartest people in dance music let their personas hang loose, sidestepping revivalist fetishism to create an alternate universe where doo-wop has drops and people still think of rap as a disco offshoot. Here, crate-digging is still cool, and A-Trak and Armand van Helden grab samples from the likes of Stephen Stills, singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester's forgotten New Wave LP and most appropriately, German club goofballs Boney M. Even the skits have an unusually high success ratio, purposefully disrupting the track-into-track flow so that listeners experience Quack not as a mix to lose among your downloads, but as an album to explore. N.M.
The first official studio album from New Orleans bounce queen Big Freedia harkens back to the days when dance music sounded like a series of orders: "Lift Dat Leg Up," "Jump On It" and "Explode" for 10 tracks of boot camp from the world's toughest party drill sergeant. Freedia's pretty much the only mainstream proponent of bounce, a style that flirts with breakbeats, hip-hop, Miami bass and churning low end, all sped up to a heart-attack BPM. But on Just Be Free she's nodding to contemporary club culture as well, her choice of textures repositioning regional booty music as a form of leftfield EDM. A.C.
Bassnectar's beautiful dark brostep fantasy is ambitious, conceptual and full of heavy bangers whose power can be felt at any volume. Tracks like "The Future," "You & Me" and "Open Up" envelop with waves of "Runaway" sandpaper synths and hypnotize with thudding, half-time beats. "Now," on the other hand, recruits rapper Rye Rye to see how Baltimore club might sound with Dutch bounce and Atlanta snares. Ignore the title: Rather than enact the opposition between noise and beauty — the masculine drop against the feminine hook — this album challenges it, exploiting the visceral effects of both in the kind of process that old-school dubstep snoots would giddily describe as deconstruction. N.M.
New Jersey-based producer Joey Anderson makes earthy house music that would sound just as at home in intergalactic transport. It's gaseous and strange, weighted down for familiar rhythms but with a different sense of gravity. He got his start as a dancer, though his preferences run a little more abstract. Tracks like "It's a Choice" and "Sorcery" get groovy over odd, stuttering breakbeats, while others like "Sky's Blessings" drift in patterns more in line with Chicago footwork. It's all house music, however, so After Forever always finds a way to waver and float. A.B.
Traxman's 2012 debut full-length for British label Planet Mu was an ambitious flashpoint for Chicago's footwork scene of ankle-breaking beats and dances — the veteran DJ/producer collaged an all-encompassing portrait of where the music had been and where it might go. Da Mind of Traxman Vol. 2 zooms in on the stark core of his relentless snip-and-tap sampling — warped soul vocals, sputtering percussion, slipping in and out of sync, sometimes playfully, sometimes harshly, doubling back, digging at the groove obsessively. "Make Love to Me" deftly lacerates warm woodwinds and a keening female voice, then peppers them with rhythmic pellets; "Let It Roll Geto" throws a party by bashing a snatch of Eurhythmics "Sweet Dreams" to bits; and "15416" flips a chant, a wail, a trumpet bleat and typewriter snares into a beautifully agitated shuffle. C.A.
The debut album from Brooklyn's Fatima Al Qadiri is an exploration of Chinese music in the same way that Las Vegas' New York-New York Hotel & Casino is an exploration of metropolitan life. A concept record ostensibly about orientalism in the grime scene, Asiatisch constructs chillingly artificial worlds that sound somewhere between PlayStation blips, Oneohtrix Point Never cheese-synths and cut-ups of Chinese poetry. The Mandarin cover of "Nothing Compares 2 U" finds a new layer of false-nostalgic beauty in a year when artists are still covering "Wicked Game." C.W.
Subtlety reigns supreme here, but U.K. veteran Andy Stott is a master of gleaning maximal effect from minimal means. On his fourth full-length, the Manchester experimentalist turns forbidding sounds into beautiful artifacts. Like the statue on the cover, the music on Faith in Strangers stretches and blurs; much of it haunted by the presence of Alison Skidmore, a breathy, spectral vocalist who commands attention even when she's not actually singing. The best tracks ("On Oath," "Science and Industry," "How It Was") match her hovering voice with beats that pound away. A.B.
For his remarkable seventh studio album, legendary Detroit house maverick Kenny Dixon Jr. sounds like he blazed up on a lazy Sunday afternoon with his collection of jazz, soul, funk, gospel and house records (including old Moodymann jams) and got deep into his feelings. Bits of movie dialogue, woozy mumble-brags, murder stats, drug kingpin lore and rhetorical asides like, "Are y'all mad I'm a loco Detroiter?" color in the spaces between peerlessly inventive tracks. "Lyk U Use 2," a bittersweet shout to a lost love which constantly tweaks its sample's tempo; an appropriately disorienting remix of Lana Del Rey's "Born 2 Die"; the mood-shifting techno-pop impressionism of "IGUessuneverbeenlonely" (with Junior Boys' Jeremy Greenspan); and the dark, racing spoken-word musing of "Freeki Muthafucka." And that's only a fraction of the trip. C.A.
Much of 2014's most fun-loving, forward-thinking EDM came from Trinidad, where Machel Montano got sentimental over synths and Fay-Ann Lyons added big drops to her soaring ballads. Still, few people anywhere in the world pushed popular dance music harder than Lyons' husband, Bunji Garlin, the 36-year-old soca star who ran his home country's carnival celebrations with the trance-touched "Truck on D Road" then dropped an A$AP Ferg trap remix in time for New York's Labor Day celebrations. Differentology, his album-length mission statement, advocates for any music that will make the crowd move and gets a hand from Major Lazer, who contribute a festival-ready remix of the title track. N.M.
With tracks name-checking leisure suits and DeLoreans, Norwegian producer Todd Terje's vision of the future comes filtered through the past. It's Album Time is equal parts robo-disco and Miami Vice synth jams, complete with a few krautrocky excursions into outer space. In a year of endless drops and tough-guy posturing, Terje's soundtrack for the swingers of yesteryear soothes ragged nerves. A.C.
Though the annoying viral stunts felt hopelessly modern, on his first album in 13 years, Richard D. James partied like it was 1995 — a time when his music was possibly the most futuristic thing around. It's all there, like an old, very eccentric friend — the familiar drum stutter, the blorping bass lines that distend like Flubber, the venomous acid riffs, even the pastoral Satie-style piano closer. Though everyone from Skrillex ("Doompy Poomp") to Deadmau5 ("Superbia") to Thom Yorke ("Nose Grows Some") borrowed a little of Aphex Twin this year, this reliable comeback record was 64 minutes of the real, unfiltered glitchy deal. C.W.
Dan Snaith's sixth Caribou album startled fans by, well, not startling them. Snaith, a master of the dramatic departure, picked right up from the deep tech-y, house-y vibes explored on 2010's Swim. Gone were most of the willfully obscure, psych and IDM leanings of early Caribou fare, and in their place a healthy dose of slinky R&B inflections. Over slow-bubbling grooves, the album glows with warmth, wistfulness and melancholy nostalgia. A.C.
Though best known for his over-the-top, into-the-gut bass blasts, Skrillex has long played DJ sets that situate original tracks amid classic hip-hop, pan-genre dance records and Toto's "Africa." Recess, his first proper LP, tells that story, filtering the speaker-blowing dubstep through 2 Step and K-Pop or chopping it into compelling, glitchy oddities like "Doompy Poomp" and "Dirty Vibe." The sound might be less focused, but the artist behind it is more zeroed in than ever. N.M.
For a thematic descent that begins with death's onset, and careens into the darkness that follows, Flying Lotus' fifth album breathes life in saturated Cinemascope. Unleashing jazz-fusion fantasias — reminiscent of the Ornette Coleman band during guitarist James Blood Ulmer's tenure and the spiritual meditations of FlyLo's great-aunt Alice Coltrane — the Los Angeles beatmaker addresses the passing of loved ones with colorful bursts of woodwinds and breathless programming. On "Never Catch Me," Kendrick Lamar rips an anxious soliloquy over lasering beats; and "Dead Man's Tetris," featuring Snoop Dogg, gets disoriented and blackly comic. The album moves from keyboard cloud-drifts to IDM frippery to goofball asides (with FlyLo in his rapping guise Captain Murphy) to "The Protest," where celestial voices intone, "We will live on forever," as strings and piano give way to a kick/snare headnod. The sound of rebirth. C.A.