I decided that, for this year’s Retrospect posts, I’d make a return to talking about some of the music-related stuff I discovered over the last year, as I did two years ago (but neglected to do last year). In 2016, my music listening habits changed dramatically. For years the vast, vast majority of my music consumption took place behind my car’s steering wheel, driving to and from work. The rest of my time was taken by various other hobbies and such, and while in a lot of cases I could have turned something on in the background, I’ve never been much of a fan of music as background noise, at least not when I’m doing stuff on my own. This meant that, on average, I’d get through anywhere from 2-4 albums (as I tend to listen to my music in full album format) per week.
Besides this, I am a CD collector as I know I’ve mentioned before, and until recently have been staunchly anti-streaming — not for any moral reason or anything like that, but more because I like to physically own the music I listen to. So, often in the past, I have put off listening to certain albums for days, months, and years in some cases, until I am able to get a copy of the CD and burn it onto my computer, to be played on my aging iPod Touch while I’m driving to and from work.
This all meant that discovering music was a slow process for me. This was not necessarily a bad thing, as it certainly made me very discerning in the kinds of things I would actively seek out, but looking back I realized that I was missing out on a ton of music because I was severely limiting myself and the kinds of things I would allow myself to listen to.
This all changed early this year, when I got married. In lieu of hiring a DJ, my wife and I decided to do the music ourselves, in that we built various playlists to be played during our ceremony and receptions, using Spotify. In order to have these play without ads, I activated a free trial of Spotify Premium for a month…and I was hooked. Around the time that I signed up for this, my job responsibilities at work were shifting somewhat, and I had whole days where I was off the phones just processing e-mails, meaning that I had 7+ hours per day where I could sit and listen to music. As a result, where I was once lucky to listen through five albums in a week, I was now getting through that many or more per day.
The effects have been substantial, ranging from less money spent on CDs (sadface), to entire new genres, subgenres, and microgenres of music having been discovered that I would never have had access to before. My listening habits meandered throughout the year, but there were two major periods where I was listening to nothing but certain styles of music, and as such I want to spend a little time reflecting on that and talking about some of the things I discovered and learned. Mostly this will be by listing great albums that I had the pleasure of discovering this year, but I’ll also interject here and there with various things that struck me as I progressed through this year’s journey.
The first big period I focused exclusively on electronic music, exploring all different subgenres, artists, and formats for a good three months, at least. I listened through some ~120+ albums, and I realized just how crazy and diverse some of this stuff can be — and how much really good stuff is out there, especially from genres I never had an interest in before. Let’s get started. (Note: As in past years, this list will cover anything I first heard this year, regardless of when the music itself was released…just to avoid any confusion that may appear for those of you who aren’t familiar with the way I tend to do my end-of-year lists!)
Underworld – Everything, Everything (2000)
Regular readers of this blog may remember a couple years ago when I did my end-of-the-year music list, I had just discovered Underworld, and I found them good, and all was well with the world. This last year I decided to revisit Underworld in the form of Everything, Everything, an album I had picked up on my initial Underworld stint, only to shelve it for almost two years without ever giving it a proper listen. This year I did, and — wow — it ended up being the best thing I own from this group, and one of the flat-out best electronic albums I’ve listened to. It’s a near-perfect mix of top material from Underworld’s best period of output, but nothing I heard this year — nothing — topped what it was like to listen to this album’s rendition of “Pearls Girl” for the first time. The live atmosphere mixed with the absolutely insane energy this song brings is incomparable. Few live albums really, truly paint a picture of what it’s like to be seeing a band in person, but this album comes as close as any I’ve heard — vibrating floor, lightshow, sweat and all.
Traumprinz/Prince of Denmark/DJ Metatron
Whatever moniker of this attention-averse, vinyl-only DJ you choose to explore, the results are fascinating; I got into his work through his free mix This Is Not, released as DJ Metatron, but probably anywhere else would be as good a starting point. This stuff is airy and aqueous, weaving a path between ambient house and deep house and minimal techno, always managing to stay melodic and introspective and completely understated. Perfect music for an overcast, gray day where all you really want to do is sit and think about life and clouds and the meaning of sadness.
Moodymann – DJ-Kicks (2016)
Moodymann’s DJ-Kicks mix is dusty, soul-heavy deep house — the kind of thing that works as a soundtrack for urban backalleys and smokey lounges. Mixing in J Dilla-inspired hip-hop with funk, disco, and house, there weren’t many albums I listened to this past year with quite as much pure atmosphere as this DJ-Kicks mix — it’s equal parts cozy and oppressive, lying somewhere between affluent upper middle-class suburbia and the projects. Mixing in even an acoustic Jose Gonzalez song, this has a little bit of everything, with a thread of melancholy running between all the cuts — that often being the only thing connecting some of the more disparate tracks together. And yet it all seems to make the sense of an intricate puzzle once assembled, which just goes to demonstrate Moodymann’s mastery of his craft.
Tiger & Woods – RA.239 (2010)
I’ll touch on the awesomeness of ResidentAdvisor’s weekly mixes a bit further down in this post, but I want to call out this one specifically because it’s just straight-up fun, the high-energy dancefloor candy you didn’t know you needed. Prior to this, I had never really heard of electro-disco, much less given it a chance, but this hand-picked mix of deep cuts from a range of artists unveiled yet another genre of music for me to explore someday. If you’re reading this post, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you’re probably not the type to throw a house party, but in case you do and you find yourself in need of a last-minute soundtrack, this would do nicely.
The history of electronic dance music is really cool
Given that I’m the author of a blog called “subculture diaries”, it may not surprise you that I have a fascination with subcultures, their histories, and how they interact with the world today — some more than others, to be sure, but music subcultures in particular are always really neat to learn about. This year I read through a book called Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture by Simon Reynolds, and I can’t recommend this enough if you’re into this kind of thing. It was published in the late ’90s so it’s really only about half a history — especially given how much EDM has fractured and split and globalized in the last 20 years — but serves as a pretty complete (although admittedly biased towards certain types of music and against others) history of the early years of rave. I learned a ton from reading this and discovered quite a few artists, and learned appreciation of certain subgenres that I had before had no interest in. Highly recommended.
µ-Ziq – “Hasty Boom Alert” (1997)
Atmospheric drum & bass is a cool genre, and one I didn’t even know existed until I started really exploring EDM and learning about its history. In general, D&B/jungle has never really been my thing — the typical, Pendulum-type stuff is okay, but I always had trouble distinguishing between different artists and songs. The general lack of melody or hook makes most straight D&B really dry, soulless stuff…which in many cases may be the point, but that just means that I’m not onboard with the point to begin with.
Atmospheric D&B, though, kind of changed my outlook and provided an interesting alternative to the mechanical, droning style I was accustomed to. Although it’s still really difficult for me to sit through an entire album of even this stuff, µ-Ziq’s “Hasty Boom Alert” stands among the best examples of what the genre has to offer when done right, at least from what I’ve heard. Skittery drums race underneath dreamy synthscapes to create a paradoxical, serene paranoia for five minutes. Other atmospheric D&B made its appearance in my listening throughout the year, much of which is worth recommending here as well (Squarepusher’s Hard Normal Daddy, Big Bud’s Infinity + Infinity, and Omni Trio’s “Mystic Stepper (Feel Better)” are just a few examples), but “Hasty Boom Alert” was probably the most memorable of it all to me.
Zomby – Where Were U In ’92? (2008) and Lone – Galaxy Garden (2012)
As I explored some of the roots of EDM, specifically breakbeat hardcore, I found myself feeling oddly disconnected from it — a big part of this, I think, was the fact that this music as it was originally made was not intended for home or personal listening, it was always supposed to be experienced in a sweaty, cramped club with huge speakers, rushing on E and surrounded by loved-up strangers. Without that context, the music is undeniably missing its purpose and loses its edge. Try as I might, I just can’t get into most hardcore from the early ’90s — it was music designed to interact with Ecstasy in weirdly particular ways, and without the drug it’s just not really all that interesting.
I do, however, admire the aesthetic of the music, even if it does nothing for me specifically, so Zomby and Lone’s takes on oldskool breakbeat hardcore were pleasant surprises — throwback albums with modern touches, both of which feel less like club-designed sets (in Zomby’s case) or tailor-made mix material (in Lone’s case), but more like concise history lessons for a generation that wasn’t alive or was too young or was in the wrong place to have had direct contact with the first wave of the underground revolution. Both albums retain a lot of the signature sounds and motifs found in early hardcore (Where Were U In ’92? was produced on equipment from that time period), but the presentation in each is more accessible than the kind of stuff you’d typically find in the early ’90s — no overlong tracks or extended mixing techniques, or anything that’s not self-consciously cheesy. Both albums are great; Zomby’s darker, more claustrophobic and dubby, Lone’s with a colorful shimmer that could reflect sunlight, but both paying glowing homage to the giants that forged the pillars upon which the rest of EDM has made its home.
Discovering Rustie was some of the most fun I had in electronic music this year; ignoring the comparatively ho-hum Green Language, his bookend albums Glass Swords and EVENIFUDONTBELIEVE were full of the kinds of sounds that I didn’t know I really wanted to hear. The music is hard to pin down — RateYourMusic categorizes the genre as “purple sound”, which, stupidity of the label aside, actually manages to sound about as correct as a genre name can sound — but it’s full of bright, near-visible-spectrum synths and warm, enveloping melodies that ooze happiness and joy and all things good. This is anthemic, nostalgic, cathedral-filling electronic music whose sole purpose is to shatter the stained-glass windows so you can enjoy the light that reflects off the pieces as they fall.
“Minimal”, “ambient”, and “micro-” are not the dirty words I once thought
A year or two ago you couldn’t have ever convinced me that the quieter side of electronic music was anything more than extremely boring, creatively-void schlop that held no appeal. Today, I actually think I tend to be more drawn to this kind of thing that more “traditional” techno and house music, although it was not a quick transition — after a year or two of occasionally listening to things like Burial and James Blake, I convinced myself to explore less bombastic electronic avenues, and found a world at least as vast as the stuff you’re likely to hear in mainstream clubs or influencing the pop music machine.
Among the things I listened to that might fall under this umbrella, I found a lot to love — Model 500’s Deep Space, Plastikman’s Sheet One, Seefeel’s Quique, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92, Linkwood’s Expressions…the list literally goes on quite a ways, and it would take too much time and effort to delve into each one. But I’m glad I gave this type of music a chance, because if nothing else I’ve found that this is the type of stuff that actually tends to sound different, and innovative, and fresh, even years after it’s released. To say it doesn’t age at all is perhaps hyperbole, but where early ’90s hardcore, for example, sounds laughably cheesy at best today, minimal stuff released around the same time just, well, doesn’t — and it makes all the difference.
Joris Voorn – Balance 014 (2009)
It took me longer to realize than I’m willing to admit that DJs make most of their money playing other people’s music; when I first got into electronic music (namely, trance) I would purchase random mix CDs from DJs whose names I recognized through my limited exposure to the scene. This ended up being the usual suspects at the time — Tiesto, Paul Van Dyk, Sasha, et al, and I wondered then as to why the tracklists on these albums rarely, if ever, contained the mixing DJ’s tracks. I quickly began to make assumptions about the credibility of certain DJs based on the proportion of DJ mixes they’d release vs. albums of their own work, as coming from a rock-centric background, I valued originality (as far as I understood it) far more than a well-mixed set of other people’s stuff.
Sadly, this ended up putting a bad taste in my mouth and stunted my exploration of a lot of electronic music for years, and probably contributed as well to my ultimate distaste of trance itself (although I learned later that all trance DJs are corporate shills anyway, so perhaps it’s a moot point). The problem with this attitude is that it fails to take the entire DJ culture surrounding electronic music into account; mixing and remixing other people’s work is the life-force of the culture, and in many ways helps to push things forward; the closest analog in the rock realm would be the idea of the “cover” song, but that is, with few exceptions, less an expression of creativity than of appreciation. Remixes, on the other hand, take a different approach — one person’s track is another person’s blank canvas, to twist, rearrange, and warp however he or she pleases, resulting in tracks that can sound almost nothing like the original.
DJ mixes fall somewhere between these two — taking someone else’s work and putting it in a completely new environment. It took me a long time to realize that there’s an art to this, and that mixing is as much a creative exercise as a technical one. Beat matching and general rhythmic considerations aside, creating a mix requires a big-picture view on the part of the DJ doing the mixing — what is he or she trying to say, or to make the listener feel? How to manage the peaks and valleys of an hour-plus of that four-to-the-floor kick drum? What emotions do each track bring to the table, and how should these be arranged for the most exhilirating (or relaxing, or insert-your-chosen-adjective-here) experience? I imagine this is much more difficult than it seems, and that is precisely what makes Balance 014 such a fascinating release.
Take a look at the ridiculous track listing for these two discs. Where most mixes of this ilk (the Balance series, the DJ-Kicks series, the fabric series, etc.) take a more traditional, one-track-after-the-other approach, Joris Voorn decided on his Balance appearance to just go nuts, layering multiple tracks on top of one another, or sequencing them in painstaking ways to create his own movements. Dissecting each track into its constituent parts would be a tall task, and probably nearly impossible without liner notes, but the results speak for themselves — this is a serpentine, captivating mix of many genres, crossing the borders of microhouse and ambient techno and progressive house and deep house and everything in between. It’s seamless and huge, threatening and intimidating, groovy and tragic, and one of the best DJ mixes I’ve heard up to this point. If nothing else, this is objective proof that mixing is something to be respected, when done right. And Joris Voorn certainly did it right here.
The Range – Potential (2016)
10 years ago, when Burial released his self-titled debut (and similarly with his follow-up Untrue), listeners repeatedly referred to the sound as distinctly London-esque — like riding a bus on a rainy night in the iconic British city. I can’t speak to the accuracy of these comparisons as I’ve never been there, and yet I can’t help but feel like Potential invites similar comparisons, despite being quite removed musically from Burial’s more minimalistic, dubstep sound. It’s more narrative and tends to be brighter as well, although fraught with uncertainty from the very beginning — the opening track “Regular” features a looped vocal recording of a British kid saying, “Right now, I don’t have a backup plan for if I don’t make it…” The album occasionally dips its feet into these miniature vignettes in similar fashion throughout its 11-track run, creating an experience both similar and opposite to Burial’s music — where Burial’s work sounds like the dangerous, nighttime London you’re better off avoiding, Potential simulates walking down a crowded London street in the middle of the day, catching snippets of other peoples’ conversations, realizing that everyone has a story, and most of them will never be told. It’s urban and gritty in its own way, full of footwork and UK garage influences, along with plenty of melody, with one of the coolest album covers of all the electronic albums I listened to this year. It’s a memorable album for sure, and although some might call it “trendy” — and they wouldn’t be wrong — these are the kinds of trends I can get behind, if stuff like Potential is the result.
Finding out about liquid funk was a great fricking time — have you ever heard a song or style of music that you never heard before, and immediately realized that you wanted more of that stuff? I didn’t know liquid funk as a genre existed, but when I discovered it I found it hard to believe that I’d survived so long without knowing about it. You may not have ever heard of it yourself — it wouldn’t surprise me — but liquid funk basically takes the rhythmic elements from drum ‘n’ bass, slows them down a bit, and tends to feature bright melodies and shimmery vocal work. It’s basically the best elements from, say, trance (choke down your cringe, CHOKE IT DOWN) mixed with the best elements from d’n’b, fused together to create something airy, pretty, and relievingly soothing. Certain artists (Danny Byrd, Netsky) tend to be a little harder with their approach, while others (Brookes Brothers, Tokyo Prose) verge on being a more modern take on atmospheric d’n’b, but all of it retains a characteristic smooth and — yes — liquid feel, and makes it appealing in almost every circumstance or mood I’m in.
ResidentAdvisor is a website dedicated to electronic music — all sorts of stuff is on there, including album reviews, op-ed stuff, interviews with DJs, and a number of other things. One of the coolest things they do is feature a weekly DJ mix, available for free download from their website. They’ve been doing this for years, although most (if not all) of the old ones are no longer able to be downloaded — but it’s typically a quick Google search away to find them. I discovered these last year, actually, but it’s worth mentioning them here because these ended up being a kind of gateway into the EDM world for me. Most of them are good if not great, and range across the spectrum of electronic music. Some of my favorites include Joris Voorn’s mix, Vril’s, and Dadub’s, but for the price, pretty much all of them are worth checking out. Besides just being (by and large) great music, these mixes act as a kind of Cliff’s Notes to electronic music, a cheat sheet for the different styles and genres; just beware, because it’s a slippery slope from there, and before you know it you’re looking up prices on classic analog synths and trying to justify spending money on sequencers despite having literally no musical talent. Thankfully I’m not as impulsive as I once was, but I imagine that many aspiring DJs got their start in a similar way. Just know what you’re getting yourself into!