Note: I appreciate we're a few weeks into 2011 now and most best of lists have long since been and gone. To hell with convention though eh, here's a belated list for you all to enjoy
2010 was as fragmented and schizophrenic a year as ever in the world of electronic / dance music. In what strange world is Actress dubstep or Instra:Mental drum & bass? Artists seemed to be inter-breeding at an unprecedented rate with an irreverent approach to genre-bending. Flying Lotus transcended his Dilla’esque associations and pulverised everyone's brain with a bar-raising genre-less masterpiece. Meanwhile Shed made a techno album that jumped wildly between tempos and beats yet hung together beautifully. Similarly, the masterful Actress created an album that took in a bewildering range of influences yet pulled it all off with aplomb. In each of these cases, the artist took their genre as a frame to hang everything else onto; a starting point or a set of signifiers within the music. This was about building from the past but not in a nostalgic way. The best of these albums were surreal mutations adeptly mixing up old fragments into unlikely shapes.
1 Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
Having wowed fans for the last few years with his warped electronic take on Dilla, in 2010 Flying Lotus didn’t just raise the bar, he attached rockets to it, putting it out of everyone's reach for good. It makes sense that his aunt is Alice Coltrane, its a complex head trip punching its weight far outside the world of beats and dance music. Its equal parts jazz, electronica, hip hop and video game music but don’t be mislead, this isn't just cerebral music. Its music for the body too and FlyLo knows how to make the beat knock and get you feeling things in the gut as well as the head. The whole thing sounds alive and “unstable” like few other albums, putting paid to the myth (if anyone still believes it that is) that music made on computers is staid and lifeless. This guy is so talented it scares me, a genius in the truest sense of the word. To the legions of copyists out there, you've now been lapped. Give up.
2 Shed – The Traveller
Like Flying Lotus' effort this doesn't stay in one place for long. It rapidly skips through beats and tempos with only three of the fourteen tracks breaking the four minute mark. All of this is quite surprising for what is basically a techno album. To give you an idea of how broad the ideas are on this album, "Atmo-Action" sounds like something off Aphex Twin's Ambient Works 85-92, “The Bot” is a sparse dubstep-infused track with deep Detroit vibes whilst The Traveller is a haunted beatless synthscape degraded through layers of static. This is an artist overflowing with inspiration yet focussed as a laser beam. Its a singular and powerful artistic statement, consistently glacial yet simultaneously warm. Its spacey, dubbed out, playful and epic. This is clearly an artist whose mastered his style and now feels able to play with it freely as many of the best artists eventually do. This is an important album; a milestone in electronic music.
3 John Roberts – Glass Eights
Next we have deep house with classical stylings from the highly talented John Roberts. Now before you get any preconceptions, this is a pretty unique work. The whole thing sounds ghostly with crackles, murky atmospherics, acoustic overtones, a slowish tempo and a fragile vibe. This isn't a club album basically. The piano forms the centre of this album, its delicate melodies permeating every song. The subtle moods never hit you over the head but instead, weave their way into your sub-conscious. It’s an album of initially inconspicuous yet eventually deep charm, fiercely focussed and understated yet powerfully affecting. As they say, still waters run deep.
4 Actress – Splazsh
Of this album Pitchfork said “One of the upshots of dance music's active compartmentalization-- into genres and subgenres and niches aligned with certain kinds of basslines or BPM-- is the exalted space it affords work that jams the system. If an album proves unique, we celebrate it. And then that album makes us think all the more scrupulously about the system it happened to jam”. Splazsh takes dubstep as its jumping off point and then proceeds to throw in a wide array of sounds and influences. He jams the system with decaying ambient washes, house beats, samples with the digital lo bitrate fizz of Youtube, an opening track that lasts 8 minutes. There’s a track called” Maze” that sounds like its off Carl Craig's seminal Landcrusing, “Purple Splazsch” with its weirdly jarring yet catchy guitar sample and 80s rock snares, there's the weird metallic repetition and ghostly vocoders of “The Kettle Men” for example. This album is nuts, it goes from funky to bewildered and melancholy, from deep house to soundscapes. I don’t know how it all hangs together but it does. You can hear Actress is deeply conversant with dubstep but also with dance music history. He’s also clearly aware of electronica / IDM history, the lo fi sampling values and glitch aesthetics resembling the Mille Plateaux or Micro House artists of ten or so years ago. Don’t be fooled, he’s not invented the wheel with this aesthetic (as some reviewers seem to be claiming), it all has a history. What’s he’s done however is fuse this eccentric sensibility with a set of modern dance signifiers in a way that few achieve.
5 ASC – Nothing Is Certain
Drum & Bass. Those two words normally fill me with trepidation and, whilst I confess that I’m pretty ignorant about the scene, it feels like nothing relevant happened for a very long time in the 00's. Techno, minimal, tech house, electro house, dubstep; all of these seemed to be far more vital. All of a sudden however a small group of producers, namely Instra:Mental and dBridge, started putting out records that blew the d&b world apart and created what Resident Adviser called “the most significant mutation in the Continuum since dubstep, or even—insofar as said (sub-)genre successfully assimilates the best bits of dubstep—before”. This stuff really is a mutation with most d&b clichés banished into exile. ASC's drums are pristine and electronic and not once is there anything even resembling an Amen break. There are rhythmical references to d&b drum programming along with sonic signifiers tying it to the genre but these are mixed in with a dazzling array of influences. I'd guess that 90s ambient and electronica along the lines of Future Sound Of London had an influence here and dubstep is clearly in evidence too (where isn't it at the moment?). Minimal techno probably had an influence as well; the spacious, meticulous sound design and synthetic timbres evocative of Hawtin et al. It’s a beautiful piece, full of rhythmical innovation, sublime melodies and strange moods. It’s another album made by an accomplished producer who's cast his eye over the past and bravely stuck it back together with unexpected and often sublime results.
6 Rick Wilhite presents Vibes New & Rare Music
This final entry doesn't really need a lot of explanation. It’s a compilation of new and exclusive Detroit Techno & Chicago House from Rich Wilhite's friends and peers. It features giants like Theo Parrish, Moodyman, Urban Tribe, the up & coming genius Kyle Hall along with some lesser known talent. If you are even remotely interested in this stuff you probably already own this but if not, go and get it now. Compilation of the year.
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