So here we are at the tail-end of 2011. Everyone’s blogging about their ‘Best Of’ lists from the past year, and I guess I’m no exception to this department. People seem to like reading them, so no skin off my back. There have been several notable events to happen this past year, specifically the rise in moombahton music at the underground level, as well as the undeniable mainstream spotlight placed firmly in the middle of dubstep. I’ve also found myself taking on a liking towards the deep house (which compiles several titles in this list), as well as a lot of people embracing the open-format sound of what many are now calling ‘bass’. (Hell, I call it ‘pretty good music’.)
I gave my best-of list a little bit of a twist this year by giving each cut that made it a unique category of its own (some more serious than others). And for the first time, I’m also giving honorable mention to a couple of mixes that got plenty of iPod action from me during the second half of the year, plus a ‘Best DJ Performance’ section.
That being said, let’s dig in. My favorite electronic/dance tunes of 2011 are as follows:
BEST FUSION OF MULTIPLE GENRES: Addison Groove: Sexual
Addison Groove’s footwork-meets-dubstep formula has proven to be more than just the flavor-of-the-month in 2011. The three-minute sexual (released on Loefah’s vinyl-only Swamp 81 workshop) illustrates there is plenty of room for soul and substance in a sound that everyone’s trying to duplicate now. All you need to do is hark back to juke’s inner-city Chi-town roots to see the immediate house influence; many of footwork’s faster counterparts perform the balancing act between the soulful house and those 808’s-on-steroids with panache.
BEST NOSTALGIC TRIP: Lone: Blossom Quarter
‘Pineapple Crush’ was my favorite work of Lone’s in 2010. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I was first in line to grab his follow-up effort, ‘Echolocations’. Forget about the fact this guy releases like one record a year; every one of them is pretty damn good. ‘Blossom Quarter’, my favorite track from the EP, feels like it’s lifted straight out of 1989. A pretty good year for dance music, I might add. It comes complete with an analog synth, a couple of drum machines, a sampler, hell maybe a 4-track for mixing it down (it even sounds a bit lo-fi but in a good way). For all I know he may be producing on a computer, but who’s counting when heads are nodding.
BEST SONG PRODUCED BY A NEWCOMER: Migrant: Monolith
An accidental discovery found while searching junodigital.com this past spring, ‘Monolith’ serves as a growing example of how the playing field is being leveled between long-established producers and the up-and-coming generation. Monolith is the most auspicious fusion of drum and bass, UK funky, house, and bass my ears have ever witnessed. Considering most efforts to be every sub-genre to every scene fail miserably, that’s saying something. I really wish this tune was more popular so I could’ve seen the crowd reaction when the amens drop. Usage of the amen break outside of drum and bass is hardly a new concept, yet sounds a bit refreshing when there’s extra room to breathe between those downbeats. Additionally, I also wish Migrant had more originals out there; as far as I can tell, this is his only release thus far.
MOST UNIQUE SONG: Dro Carey: Candy Red
I blogged about ‘Candy Red’ earlier this year. This track’s unorthodox use of sampling gave me no other choice but to list it here. The whole piece is built upon tiny soulful loops; some vocal, some instrumental….some dry, some heavily filtered. I don’t think Dro Carey utilizes more than roughly 20 seconds worth of source material to manufacture the entire project. While this cadence of production is more commonplace in faster genres such as juke and various forms of techno, hearing the edits in da rawn-out context gives Candy Red a life of its own.
BEST SONG FASTER THAN 150 BPM: Fresh: Gatekeeper
Forget about what the press has to say about drum and bass in 2011. It’s still here, and similar to vinyl records (which many DDJsinside the genre still vehemently support as their media of choice), it will continue to endure, even if just in the form of a side-note. Every year a track by long-withstanding drum and bass producer DJ Fresh makes it to my best-of list; this yyear’satekeeper’ proves 2011 to be no exception. Similar in nature to 2009’s ‘Heavyweights’, Gatekeeper is all about its funky breaks and its catchy rising baseline. And just as the genre label suggests, all you need are good drums and, well, good bass. Everything else is superfluous.
BEST ANTHEM: Swedish House Mafia & Knife Party: Antidote
Get two of the frontmen from Pendulum in the studio with the biggest trio in all of the dance music (aside from, well, maybe the Prodigy circa 1997) and this is the result. ‘Antidote’ was released a mere few weeks ago; we’ll be hearing about it well into 2012. Guaranteed. It may even make some lists at the end of next year for all we know, too. Axwell and Ingrosso program cinematic synths to pronounce all the breakdowns and build-ups of each section of Antidote. And Rob Swire continues to prove himself as one of dance’s most versatile producers, ensuring the final product will resonate loud and clear whether you hear it on laptop speakers or a six-figure sound system in Ibiza.
BEST SONG MORE THAN 10 MINUTES LONG: Michael Mackson: Gedons
So I think it’s pretty safe to say Michael Mackson’s masterpiece of the year sounds nothing like ‘Antidote’. There aren’t many songs outside of Goldie’sTimeless’ and Underworld’s ‘Juanita’ that clock in at over 15 minutes yet still manage to hold my attention (AHEM, deficit disorder). ‘Gedons’ is a different story; the hypnotic groove that runs through its veins has me sold by about the 16th bar. It’s like a dense, melancholy wooded area: navigating can be difficult, and multiple corners need to be turned to stay the course. The lead melody does just this: twists and turns amongst the thick foggy wilderness that is the underlying percussive rhythm. It takes a while to get from one side to the other, but Jackson cares little about the destination and a lot about the journey. Critics badger minimal house as being too sterile and predictable; Gedons is an example of the exact opposite.
BEST VOCALS: Julio Bashmore: Father Father
Javeon McCarthy’s soulful vocals helped edge Bashmore’s ‘Father Father’ very slightly past ‘Battle For Middle You’ for me. Putting a new spin on long-defunct gospel house sounds by the likes of Ron Caroll circa-1998, Bashmore adds his Bristol twist with McCarthy’s vocals to give it a fresh breath of air. Father Doesn’t re-define music but does a great job applying that fresh coat of varnish on that well-worn sailboat we’ve used for many, many years. Soulful vocal house is back, folks.
BEST HOUSE TRACK: Maya Jane Coles: What They Say (Dyed Soundorom Remix)
Maya is my favorite house producer at the moment; ‘4U’, ‘What They Say’, and ‘Hummingbird’ were regular fixtures in clubs throughout the world this past year. ‘What They Say’ is essentially 2011’s answer to the Nightcrawler’s iconic ‘Push That Feeling On’, and Dyed Soundorom brings out a little bit of extra groove while re-working the baseline of the original. While the original is a classic, Soundorom’s remix is even better! Plus the original was released in 2010, so it doesn’t count.
BEST REMIX: Noir & Haze: Around (Solomun Vox Remix)
To be quite honest, I initially felt Noir & Haze’s original mix of ‘Around’ wasn’t really my cup of tea. Haze’s unmistakable vocals were, however, a major redeeming quality. Then Solomon Vox comes along, extracts said vocals from the original equation, slows things down just a touch, re-works all the pads and percussion, and ends up taking something that was once forgettable and making it one of the most universally appealing songs in all of dance music this past year. Vox didn’t just remix ‘Around’, he gave it the oxygen that vocal cords needed to thrive!
BEST SYNTHS: Prolix: Visualize
What I love about Prolix’s ‘Visualize’ is the fact it rips pages from the playbooks of multiple drums and bass sub-genres. The compiled storyline still reads well and doesn’t sound forced or arbitrary. The synth work, more reminiscent of the atmospheric jungle instead of the techstep Prolix is known for producing, is my personal highlight. The squelchy bassline has more in common with jump-up, but without sounding overly wobbly or generic. Jump up, techstep, and liquid funk DJs alike played Visualize quite heavily this past year.
BEST SONG PRODUCED WITHIN A GENRE THE ARTIST IS NOT KNOWN TO PRODUCE IN: Subwave: Naked Lunch
‘Naked Lunch’ is an unexpected deep house gem penned by Metalheadz member Subwave. A drum and bass cohort for well beyond a decade, Subwave explored a lot of unchartered territory in the high-speed genre these past 3 years. While trance arpeggios were all the rage for him in 2010, this past year witnessed his crack at different forms of music entirely. ‘Naked Lunch’ almost makes me forget Subwave is from Russia; it proves to me he’s taught himself enough about the musical history of both Detroit and Chicago. Not since Marcus Intalex’s ‘Taking Over Me’ from over a decade ago have I heard house this good from someone best known as a drum and bass producer. Look out for his full-length debut next year.
BEST WEIRD TRACK: Wadsworth: Lime and Pink
I’ve always found myself attracted to Kris Wadsworth’s style of house; he hits a lot of black keys and uses percussive samples that you aren’t normally accustomed to hearing on the Beatport Top 100. He also has a knack for creatively using atonal sounds, creating tension (and, of course, the listener’s interest) in just the right places. ‘Lime and Pink’ is actually a perfect title; the opposing sounds of the warm Rhodes and the ice-cold, abrasive, and warbling lead act as these specific, opposite colors. Which one is pink? Maybe Joe Cabot from Reservoir Dogs can sort that one out for us.
BEST TRACK SLOWER THAN 110 BPM: Kassem Mosse: 2D
If DJ Screw were still alive and attempted to play deep house in his signature style (without the stutter-edits), it might sound something similar to Kassem Mosse’s2D’. Dipping below the 110 bpm mark is a very uncommon practice even amongst the slowest and deepest of house rhythms, but Mosse makes it happen. You could park an SUV right between the gaping holes of those snares and kicks; Mosse prefers just to use lots of reverb instead. The video embedded above is labeled incorrectly FYI.
BEST TRACK WHERE I JUST SHUT UP AND LET THE MUSIC DO THE TALKING: Recloose & Dwele: Can’t Take It (Milton Jackson Remix)
Let’s let Milton Jackson’s masterful deep house rendition of Recloose & Dwele’s ‘Can’t Take It’ do the talking, shall we? Words simply don’t do justice to how good it is…
BEST DUBSTEP TRACK: NERO: Me & You
Dubstep’s not my thing, but 2011 was a massive year for it (especially stateside) so I would be biased not to include at least one pick. Of all the dubstep producers enjoying mainstream success at the moment, NERO has to be my personal favorite. While ‘Crush On You’ is a little too bubble-gum pink for my cup, and ‘Innocence’ doesn’t qualify since it came out in 2010, my selection from them would have to be ‘Me And You’. I think Me And You has one of the best build-ups and drops out of anything I’ve heard this past year. The vocals are just the icing on the cake; the real substance is its energy and crossover appeal.
BEST MOOMBAHTON TRACK/BEST FREEBIE: Nadastrom: I!!
Moombahton is another topic of discussion I would probably struggle with because I admittedly don’t listen to much of it. One thing I am well aware of, however, is the fact Dave Nada and Matt Nordstrom are pretty damn good at producing the stuff. ‘I!!’ is a cut-off of their free ‘El Baile Diabluma’ EP (Thanks, Scion). If you fancy a healthy dose of congas, energetic Baltimore Club vocals that are now enjoying a new life at a slower tempo, and a humid atmosphere ripe with the sweet smell of cumbia, this is your ticket.
Download the EP for free here.
BEST JUKE TRACK: DJ Spinn: U Don’t Need
A legendary soul musician (who I’ll leave nameless for now) gets the footwork treatment on the opening track of DJ Spinn’s ‘Man I Do It’ EP, released back in February on Planet Mu. Three decades ago the sampled song in question did justice as a high school prom or wedding theme song. Spinn chops the source material up into tiny fragments, handpicking just the right ones to retro-fit in his frenzied and chaotic vision of what a high school prom SHOULD be!
BEST OVERALL SONG: Justin Martin & Ardalan: Lego
Justin Martin and Ardalan probably had no clue of the monster they were creating before ‘Lezgo’ came out this past summer. With all of Dirtybird’s producers fully embracing the brave new world of open-format house, where trends are changing by the minute, this track speaks for the label’s ability to put virtual (and legal) happy pills in the mouth of every listener imaginable. The fact there are lyrically about seven words in Lego made it that much easier for everyone to scream them out when it’s broadcasted in public. Martin playing it in his own set when he came to Boston this past November was equally a highlight for me to witness. No track manages to appeal to both the gelled upbangers’ crowd as well as the fussiest of beard-strokers like Lego was able to this past year, in my opinion.
BEST DJ MIX (Ableton): Claude Von Stroke’s Resident Advisor Mix
On the infamous Monday following the S&P downgrade of the U.S., the release of my favorite DJ mix of the year made me completely forget the fact my 401k got demolished in a mere 6-hour trading session! This is a mix that truly defined who Claude Von Stroke is as an artist. It’s halfway filled with dusty booty-shakers from the 1990s on labels like Dance Mania, the other half stacked with (then-unreleased) bassline workouts on his own label, Dirtybird. Bonus points for all of the tracks being remixed on-the-fly in Ableton, and even more extra credit due to the fact he compiled this session, not in his studio, but rather an isolated area in northern Minnesota while on a camping trip with his fam.
Note: Resident Advisor (the host of this mix) only kept this session available online for a limited period of time. It can no longer easily be found online, but ask a friend if you want to check it out. A LOT of people downloaded this when it dropped back in August.
BEST DJ MIX (Traditional): Wheez-ie Freshmore Mix
Fresh more Podcast 007-Wheez-ie by Freshmore
Out of any DJ mix, I downloaded this past year, the one I listened to the most was Wheez-ie’s podcast mix for Fresh more. Between semesters at Boston’s own Berklee School of Music, Wheezy-ie always manages to visit his Texas hometown, hit the studio, and get back to his roots. The geo-cultural influence is quite omnipresent in his work. Tracks like his own ‘Big Gulp’ are a testament to the fact that things are always, well, bigger there. Except for DJ Assault hitting the buttons on one remix, the remaining half hour is a relentless session of juke and breakbeat originals from the man himself. I recommend listening with shoes off (fans of his will understand).
BEST PERFORMANCE I SAW: SBTRKT @ Together Fest
While he was putting the finishing touches on his debut album, SBTRKT managed to squeeze in a quick tour this past spring. One of the stops was at the Great Scott to perform as one of the headliners for the Together 2011 Festival. It was easily the best DJ performance I witnessed this past year. Critical listeners have been shunning Ableton as a performance tool for years, citing it’s either too ‘flashy’ or it takes the ‘talent’ out because no beatmatching is involved. However, being able to micromanage bits and pieces of hundreds of songs, triggering each at just the right time without going overboard, takes far more skill than linear mixing, in my humble opinion. SBTRKT is one of the few people who truly utilized the capabilities of Ableton, coupled with his APC controller. Navigating his way through dozens of bass, house, soul, dubstep, and UK funky classics, there was never one point where it sounded like too much was happening all at once. And most importantly, he knew when to make people dance, when to make all the DDJsin in the room watch his every move in sheer curiosity, and when to slow things down to make everyone march over to the bar to drop their hard-earned cash on booze. Now that takes some talent, folks.
The video above is from the actual set he played FYI.
So that about sums it up, folks. Another great year in dance music. What were some of your favorites from the year? I’d love to hear in the comments section!