2011 was a great year for electronic music. In general, dance music has been on the upswing in the past few years, with pop divas like Rihanna and Lady Gaga controlling the charts while bands like Justice and LCD Soundsystem helped to re-establish the club’s credibility with alternative and indie fans. The burgeoning bass scene has only picked up speed as well, with critics raving about the new sound of London and dubstep dominating fans ranging from teenyboppers to frat bros.
Lots of music excited me this year: James Murphy’s DFA label had it’s first year post-LCD Soundsystem, and solid albums from The Rapture, Planningtorock, and Holy Ghost! continue to demonstrate DFA’s simultaneously far-flung and single-minded aesthetic. Kompakt maintains its legacy of hypnotic house with releases from John Tejada, The Field, and a surprisingly strong turn by GusGus (I had no idea the group responsible for awesome Eurotrash hits would make one of my favorite albums in 2011). Artists like FaltyDL, Machinedrum, and Kuedo kept the future music coming on the Planet Mu label, which still managed room to release a bunch of newcomers and compilations like the second volume of Bangs & Works.
Speaking of newcomers, 2011 had a ton of them. James Blake was a name that buzzed around the Internet, and his introspective, shapeshifting musical style makes him the unlikely (or perhaps most likely?) poster child for bass music. Blawan sounded the most like a logical evolution 90’s pioneers like Aphex Twin, with lurching drums underpinning instantly notorious tracks like “Getting Me Down”. Hackman expanded on the steel drums made popular by acts like the Knife and employed by contemporaries like Jamie xx, and generated classic tracks like “Close” and “Agree to Disagree”. Julio Bashmore became a critic favorite by releasing several fantastic EPs (Batty Knee Dance, Everyone Needs a Theme Tune) and a crowd favorite by spinning exceptional sets.
With 2011 ending and 2012 beginning, it seems electronic music is just getting started. I’ll spend the next few weeks listing my favorite tunes, EPs, and albums from 2011 before diving headfirst into the new year. Peace, love, unity, and respect.
Zomby is an enigmatic figure responsible for some bewitching music. He takes his favorite parts of dub, drum ‘n’ bass, and hip hop and blends them together into his own undeniable brand of music. While most famous dance producers are preoccupied with club hits that translate into popularity (and prosperity), Zomby molds tracks more designed for headphones than dance floors. He makes electronic music that is truly composed, and may someday stand as some of the first examples of symphonic dubstep. I’m convinced the government should give grants to musicians like him.
Zomby first gained notoriety with his 2008 debut album, Where Were U in 92?, which is filled to bursting with breakbeats and evokes the rave era of early ‘90s, when trance and house were arguably already hitting their peak. A recurring theme in bass music of the past few years is a nostalgia for “old” forms of dance music like hardcore rave and Chicago house, but none approached the subject with as much panache as Zomby. Instead of becoming a caricature or a cheap imitation, Zomby’s version of classic rave was joyful and exuberant, echoing old moods while employing new methods.
Since then, Zomby has become even more angular and reflective. The excellent One Foot Ahead of the Other EP is a jaunt through an 8-bit nightclub, and the announcement that Zomby’s next album would release through the 4AD label was embraced with caution. Home to indie fare like the Pixies and St. Vincent, fans were unsure what would come out of Zomby’s association with the famous label. Instead of a Where Were U rehash or a (knock on wood) pop crossover attempt, fans were rewarded with Dedication, which was more insulated and expansive than any of Zomby’s previous music. The album truly lived up to its title, both in Zomby’s intent to honor the passing of his father and in what it expected from listeners. Featuring 16 tracks over barely 35 minutes, Dedication is more like an orchestral suite than a collection of songs.
Check out “Things Fall Apart”, Dedication’s collaboration with Panda Bear, and the closest thing to a fully-formed “song” on the album, over at YouTube. Listen to the track “Digital Fauna”, b-side to the 2009 Digital Flora single, on the previous post.
The Weeknd is an unlikely paradigm for the future of pop. This particular warped brand of R&B may be in the same vein as artists like Drake (who has relentlessly promoted the group since the beginning), but the Weeknd’s minimalism and loose song structures aren’t necessarily radio friendly. In music charts dominated by thumping, simplistic anthems by Katy Perry and Ke$ha, it’s perhaps surprising that the Weeknd got noticed at all. When you consider the quality of the music and its method of distribution, however, the reasons for the Weeknd’s popularity becomes much more apparent.
Abel Tesfaye, the Weeknd’s vocalist and main creative guide, is guilty of unabashed emoting that would make Usher blush, but his curlicue vocal lines are in sharp contrast with the detached lyrical content. The Weeknd paints a vivid portrait of today’s lost souls, the kids who have grown up self-medicating their attention deficit disorders and evading their probation officers. If there’s anyone who has tapped into the feelings of ennui and entitlement that ravage the youth of developed countries, it’s Tesfaye. Coupled with distant, haunted production and stuttering, militaristic beats, the Weeknd’s music captures the disillusionment of the “Occupy” generation perfectly.
Even more impressive than the songs themselves is the schedule on which they were released. The Weeknd’s first mixtape, House of Balloons, was made available for free download in March. Since then, two more full albums have materialized, both of which are as easy on the pocketbook as the first. Thursday came out in August, and the last of the promised trilogy was just revealed this week (appropriately, on Thursday). The release of Echoes of Silence means the Weeknd have produced 3 full albums in just one year. Most pop artists make a new album every two or three years. This is certainly a prolific talent.
Even if you usually don’t enjoy modern radio R&B, the Weeknd offers a fresh spin that has entranced mainstream and alternative music fans alike. Listen to all 3 albums at the Weeknd’s SoundCloud page before downloading one or all of them from the Weeknd’s website. Check out their Tumblr page for pictures and videos, or listen to “The Birds Part 1” from Thursday on the previous post.
The realm of electronic music is dominated by solo acts. Creating sounds and manufacturing beats lends itself to solitary experimentation. The “feat…” on the end of a track title can look like the producer finished working and decided to stick a vocalist in the mix as an afterthought. Some DJs, however, work best with others (Basement Jaxx, The Chemical Brothers, and Daft Punk are just a few that come to mind.)
Baobinga, a.k.a. Sam Simpson, is defiantly in that category. He must need an administrative assistant to keep up with all of his collaborators. I’m not sure if Baobinga has ever released a solo track. His latest album, Joint Ventures, solidifies the concept of Baobinga as a synergic individual. Every track features a second artist that adds their own musical style into the mix. The album is even credited to “Baobinga & Co”.
If Baobinga has a signature sound, it’s his drums; they bang and roll and bounce and flutter all at the same time. There is a wide variety of beats and synths on the album, but of course that should be expected from such a collaboration. Joint Ventures is successful because there is a sense of joy and empowerment running through the music. So much dubstep and bass music relies on a pervasive mood, with sparse beats and distant synths evoking tension or claustrophobia. If I had to describe Joint Ventures in one word, that word would be “bright”.
Baobinga’s first album, Big Monster, was a full-length collaboration with I.D. Check out the low (low low) budget video for club banger “Jewelz” over at YouTube. Check out Baobinga’s SoundCloud to hear more recent tracks from Joint Ventures and related singles. Listen to “The Waterpark”, a throbbing instrumental from Big Monster, on the previous post.
You may pronounce his moniker like “subtract”, but Aaron Jerome probably won’t be taking an accounting job anytime soon. He’ll most likely be found behind a pair of turntables, hiding behind a tribal mask. SBTRKT has been all over the place this year, with reviews of his debut self-titled album fueling buzz that he would be shortlisted for Britain’s Mercury Prize. Although he didn’t garner a nomination for that prestigious award, SBTRKT is definitely an album that deserves a larger audience.
While gaining acclaim for remixing artists like Gorillaz and Radiohead, SBTRKT had a growing list of original tracks before releasing his surprising full-length debut. Although several featured vocalists, they were secondary to SBTRKT’s off-kilter tracks that buzz with tangible energy. The fact that the LP was made almost entirely of vocal tracks indicates the direction SBTRKT is headed. So many British bass producers have exclusively released instrumentals, or tracks that sample voices only as part of the texture of the song. SBTRKT is one of the first to fully embrace bass music’s potential as future pop.
Besides playing a DJ set at the 2011 Coachella Music and Arts Festival, SBTRKT embarked on a worldwide tour this year with a live band, defying expectations and further developing his signature sound. While much of modern bass music is sparse and brooding, SBTRKT’s songs are full of warmth and depth. Although hiding behind a mask is nothing new (here’s looking at you, Daft Punk), SBTRKT certainly brings something new to the rapidly evolving world of dance music.
Start investigating SBTRKT by checking out his SoundCloud page, which features several tracks as well as his mixes for Mary Anne Hobbs and the BBC. Watch the strikingly simple video for “Pharaohs”, a standout track from the LP, or you can listen to “Look at Stars”, an earlier track featuring Sampha (a frequent collaborator), on the previous post.