It has been an interesting year for electronic music; one full of shifting trends, nostalgic resurgences, unexpected gems and surprise disappointments. Whether any of that makes 2013 different from any other year in electronic music is, however, questionable. Dig deep enough and dance music is always fascinating to follow. On a personal level though, when digging through my hard drive in preparation for writing this end of year column, I've realised that there has been a lot of tracks I've loved this year. But we'll come to those later.
Before getting into the inevitable narcissistic 'me forcing my music taste on you in list form' part of this best-of column, I thought I'd reach out to a few of the people involved in making and releasing some of my favourite releases of the past year, and ask them to nominate a 2013 highlight. So, below, you'll find a small handful of 2013's most interesting electronic musicians proving that they can write about dance music better than I can...
Logos on Rabit's Sun Showers [Diskotopia]
Logos' recently released debut LP Cold Mission is a late contender for electronic album of the year. It's a masterpiece of reimagined grime; an exercise in breaking down the genre into its most primal elements, examining its roots and building it back up into something wholly new. If you're yet to check it out, go get it now.
Logos: "There has been so much amazing new music this year - most of it still unreleased - which I've heard from the network of grime influenced producers which you will hear in the sets of people like Slackk and Dusk & Blackdown.
"But "Sun Showers", by Houston producer Rabit really stands out; its tempo means you can integrate it within a 135-140bpm set but its shimmering tones hang weightlessly in the air like evaporating mist and is any many ways ambivalent towards the dancefloor. I don't think this sound can be pinned down as grime; it has a broader ambition."
Peverelist on Elgato's Dunkel Jam [Elgato]
As one third of Livity Sound, boss of Punch Drunk, and as an artist in his own right, Bristol-based producer Tom Ford (aka Peverelist, or just Pev) has been involved in the release of a wealth of excellent music throughout 2013. From his brooding collaboration with Hodge, "Bells", his killer joint production with Kowton, "Raw Code", and his wonderfully hypnotic solo cut "Aztec Chant", 2013 has probably been the finest 12 months of Pev's career so far.
Pev: "It's been around for a little while but finally hit vinyl this year. It's a real vibey percussion led dancefloor track that always works where ever I play it. Perfect."
Nils Frahm on Four Tet [Text Records]
You might not initially think of German composer Nils Frahm as an electronic musician, but "Says" - the lead single from his recent LP Spaces - is hands-down the finest piece of synthesiser-led music to be released this year. Frahm is doesn't just dabble in electronics, however; he's been collecting vintage synths since he was a teenager, and as owner and resident producer of Berlin's Durton Studios, he's a fully-fledged, card-carrying music tech nerd.
Nils Frahm: "Four Tet has never let me down in his career. Every release shows an artist on the edge of his personal exploration."
Joe on Nowakowski's They Get Up [Room With A View]
London-based producer and DJ Joe is hardly the most prolific artist in the UK - he's clocked-up just four 12"s in the past three years - but he's certainly one of the most consistently impressive. His recent Hessle Audio single, "Slope"/"Maximum Busy Muscle", is up there with the finest things released in the past 12 months (more on that below), and his latest release - "Punters Step Out"/"Club Scared", set for release on Hemlock next week - is a double header of wonderfully esoteric dance music that sound like nothing else out there.
Joe: "This track stands strong alone, but can bring something special to the mix. A kinda generic DJ sentiment, maybe, but it's true! And I like tracks that can achieve this. Blending it in is a real pleasure: the intro thumps along on a fairly broody tip, but then this piano-sounding sample suddenly filters in to make for an unexpectedly 'grooving' and optimistic drop.
"Another reason I've enjoyed playing it is that it mixes quite well in to "Slope" (from my recent 12" on Hessle Audio), a sort-of key match/mash thing. And I often struggle to include my own music in sets in ways that I actually enjoy.
"Note: I first heard this tune in a DJ Nature mix, and he's another producer that's definitely worth checking out!"
E.M.M.A on Forest Swords' Engravings [Tri Angle]
Newcomer E.M.M.A is a label-mate of Logos on Keysound and, like him, her debut LP Blue Gardens is an exercise in reworking the template of instrumental grime. E.M.M.A's is a considerably different approach though; one which sees her trading the genre's bravado and aggression for vibrant sonic nostalgia and deceptively complex songwriting.
E.M.M.A: "I spent most of the year working on my album until its release at the end of July, so I haven't really consumed much other music until the past few months.
"Logos' "Statis Jam" had helped me through many a boring stressful day in the office but aside from his Keysound record, another standout for me has been Forest Swords' Engravings on Tri Angle Records, which had an immediate impact on me.
"It is a pleasure to listen to and kind of encapsulates everything I love, with the hiphop grooves, sometimes dubby vibes and the guitar bits are inspired. It occupies its own time and space which is basically what you want from an album."
In terms of unreleased music, Acre has produced some incredibly atmospheric weighty tunes with eerie melodies, such as "City" which you know you're going to be listening to for years."
Armchair Dancefloor's dancefloor tracks of 2013
I'm opting to forgo ranking my favourite electronic albums in this end of year column. You'll be bombarded by album lists for the next few weeks, including DiS' own (which I've contributed my thoughts to) next week, so it seems pointless to add to the deluge. I will use this intro to name drop a few personal favourites, however.
When pushed recently, I've been nominating The Knife's flawed but wonderfully inventive Shaking The Habitual as my favourite album of 2013, but Haxan Cloak's beautifully textured and brilliantly conceived Excavation is a very close second. Aside from those - and the various releases mentioned in the section above - I've loved Jon Hopkins' sublime blend of humanised instrumentation and techno rhythms on Immunity, along with Autre Ne Veut's chaotically emotional Anxiety. FaltyDL's understated masterpiece Hardcourage has to be one of the most underrated electronic albums of the year, whilst Oneohtrix Point Never's R Plus Seven and Tim Hecker's Virgins are both beautifully evocative pieces of electronically-inclined ambience.
Two labels worth a special mention this year, in my view, are Fabric's new Rob Booth helmed offshoot Houndstooth, and Bill Kouligas' PAN. The former has been responsible for absolutely stellar LPs from Paul Woolford's Special Request project and Manchester duo Akkord, along with a pair of wonderful EPs from Call Super. PAN, meanwhile, has played host to the fascinating debut LP from legendary mastering engineer Rashad Becker, Heatsick's new album Re-engineering and a pair of exceptional noisy techno EPs from Concrete Fence and Black Sites.
On the subject of EPs, Slackk's recent grime mini-epic Failed Gods on Local Action and Wen's moody Commontion are both essential listens. Whilst Demdike Stare's ongoing Testpressing series has provided some of the most inventive electronic music of 2013.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand. Sticking to the core, club-inclined territory of this column, below is a countdown of 15 of my favourite floor-focused dance tracks from the past twelve months. There's definitely plenty of stuff I've missed (looking at the list now, I reckon I should have found a place for Jacques Greene and How To Dress Well's pop gem "On Your Side".) Oh well.
15. Kevin McPhee - Unwind [Idle Hands]
"Unwind" is a relatively straightforward house tune - comprised of a funky bassline, 4x4 beat, single word vocal hook and some gorgeous synth chords that rise up towards the end - but it's executed absolutely perfectly. It's dance music that you simply can't resist dancing to; which is sort of the point of the whole thing, really.
14. Kowton - TFB [All Caps]
With its blown-out kicks and lively-as-hell synth lead, Kowton's tribute to iconic grime outfit Ruff Sqwad is a work of filthy, distorted brilliance.
13. Borai - Does It Bother You? [Tasteful Nudes]
This B-side to Bristol-based producer Boris English's debut solo release is a fantastic amalgamation of vintage drum breaks, carefully deployed movie samples and warm house synths.
12. KMFH - Crushed [Wild Oats]
This standout track from Kyle Hall's The Boat Party LP takes a properly less-is-more approach; proving that some distorted drums and a filtered r&b vocal is all Hall needs to compose a gorgeous house tune.
11. Kode9 - Kan [Hyperdub]
Apparently "Kan" - Kode9's exercise in brilliantly bonkers, found sound footwork - takes its name from the fact it's built around a sample of a can of Irn Bru being opened and served. I could make a joke about it spearheading a new Bru-step movement, but we're all better than that.
10. Beneath - Duty [Tectonic]
London-based producer Beneath is part of a wave of artists to emerge in 2013 who have been reviving the dark spaciousness of early dubstep to brilliant effect. With its wonderfully primal percussion, throbbing low end and twisted lead synths, "Duty" is possibly his most refined work to-date.
9. Fis - DMT Usher [Tri Angle]
The idea of an 'ambient banger' is something of a logical impossibility. But if such a concept were to exist, it would probably sound like this.
8. Florian Kupfer - Lifetrax [L.I.E.S]
As with most the music released on L.I.E.S in 2013, German producer Florian Kupfer's debut single "Lifetrax" is a work of rough-around-the-edges, hardware-driven house music. "Lifetrax" stands apart from its label-mates, however, thanks to the utterly sublime beauty of its almost lullaby-like lead synths. The result, to offer a hugely tenuous analogy, feels a little like lying in a flotation tank that's been dumped in the middle of a warehouse rave.
7. Sophie - Bipp [Numbers]
There was absolutely nothing else released in 2013 that sounded even remotely like "Bipp". It's a maximalist anthem and minimal synth experiment in equal measures; riding along on a bassline so slinky it's almost impossible to get a grip on, yet still incessantly catchy thanks to that saccharin-sweet vocal hook.
6. Four Tet - Kool FM (Champion remix) [Text Records]
Four Tet's pirate radio-referencing "Kool FM" was undoubtedly one of the highlights of Beautiful Rewind, but Champion's relentlessly tough remix - which drags the track back towards the dancefloor with its tribal grime beat and massive bass hits - still blows the original out of the water.
5. Tessela - Hackney Parrot [Poly Kicks]
"Hackney Parrot" is easily the most fun thing to come out of the whole hardcore/jungle revival trend that swept through 2013. Its non-nonsense breakbeats and catchy vocal hook are like an injection of pure '90s rave joy.
4. Randomer - Bring [Hemlock]
With its warped lead and brutally simple beat, "Bring" manages to strike the perfect balance between hard-hitting dancefloor power and catchy melodic accessibility.
3. Locked Groove - Dream Within A Dream [Hotflush]
The clear highlight of the Belgian producer's Heritage EP from earlier this year, "Dream Within A Dream" sees Locked Groove channeling early-'90s proto-trance to brutally anthemic effect. It's hardly the most original track in the world (think Orbital's "Belfast" updated for the 21st century) but it's executed in such a highly refined, melodically perfect manner that it's hard not to fall for its full-frontal major key charms.
2. Joe - Slope [Hessle Audio]
"Slope" is a wonderfully subtle, simplistic track. With its irresistible bass hook, lightly discordant synths and its refusal to ever resolve itself in the way you expect it to, it manages to draw a huge amount of tension out of just a few core elements. Genuinely one of the most finely crafted tunes to be released in a long time.
1. Pev & Kowton - Raw Code [Hessle Audio]
As their repeat appearances throughout this column should have made clear, both Pev and Kowton have been involved in a lot of excellent music in 2013. "Raw Code" - which was first released on Hessle in February, and was included on their recent Livity Sound LP - feels like the pinnacle of their collective output, however.
It has the same rough-edged, raw feel to it as their finest work with Livity Sound, but its huge, heavily swung bass hits and rapid-fire percussion are the stuff of a proper peak-time, rave classic. It seems to channel the liveliness of grime, brooding subs of dubstep and the grittiness of warehouse techno all at once, resulting in one of the most mesmerisingly interesting, yet irresistibly energetic dance tunes of recent years.
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