Letter #1 - Peter
Letter #2 - Ronan
Letter #3 - Philip
Letter #4 - Peter
Letter #5 - Ronan
Letter #6 - Philip
Letter #7 - Peter
Letter #8 - Ronan
Letter #9 - Philip
From: Peter Chambers
To: Ronan Fitzgerald, Philip Sherburne
Dear Ronan and Philip,
I'm going to start the ball rolling against the friction of a few negatives by saying what 2008 was not:
– 2008 was not a dud year in any sense of the word.
– 2008 was not about any kind of "soul revival" effected via the three Ds (Dive, Johnny or Move).
– 2008 is not in any way the fifth act of a tragedy. (The end is not nigh.)
The first point is crucial because it has provided many of us with a lazy prop for deriding "the now" from a world-weary cynic's view, and cynicism, as every cynic secretly knows, is a particularly cowardly form of superiority.
When I actually think about 2008, I feel that there has been no shortage of fresh, inspired music being produced, and that "the industry" (whatever that is) has actually generated as many spaces of hope as those squashed by mediocrity and indifference—same as it ever was. So when I was railing (and boy did I rail), I wasn't talking about 2008. If I was speaking any kind of truth, it was the truth of my symptoms, and they were manifesting for two reasons.
a previous feature, this is an era in which listening and reviewing is so much about giving a gloss on the froth, just in order to keep from drowning in it. I didn't have beef with 2008, I was tired by having to swim (forget wading) with the tide of new music. So at some point, when I conceded that it would be physically impossible to listen to it all, I gave up trying. 2008: Or, how I learnt to stop worrying and love the datasea. We think we have to swim or we'll drown, and this is tiring and stressful. But we can float. So float. And relax.
The second reason I was symptomising is mostly a matter of stance. It's all a matter of distanciation, disapprobation and disappointment. The three Ds of dissing (to be applied to the other three Ds mentioned above) has come to comprise the posture proper to a certain kind of blogospheric musing on music and the world. Like the "tiger and crane" of kung fu masters, this is the stance I kept moving into, and, as I said, it's a symptom—but of what? Well, of a counter-discourse, of course.
The blogosphere has created a new context for the reception, appropriation and reproduction of electronic music. Crucially, it's a context (call it a space if you like) that's semi-autonomous: it's of the industry, but not in the industry, and it exists with a deliberate, cultivated, critical ambivalence toward the things it feeds on—which is understandable, because a lot of it is fodder that makes you feel ill…. see? I'm assuming the position…
Why? The blogosphere is at odds with itself. It's caught between the urge toward presentation ("check this out," "this is great," "here's the link") and the desire to represent itself as independent through nay saying and disavowal ("mnml was never even a genre," "that's not the real deep house," etc). But it's not independent from what it derides. As I said, it's semi-autonomous, semi-detached. Hence the problem.
Peter Chambers' 2008 favourites
Top 10 albums
Move D/Benjamin Brunn - Songs from the Beehive
DJ Sprinkles - Midtown 120 Blues
Lee Jones - Electronic Frank
Shed - Shedding the Past
Ricardo Villalobos - Vasco
Scuba – A Mutual Antipathy
Ezekiel Honig – Pieces of a Broken Marching Band
Matmos – Supreme Balloon
Kangding Ray – Automne Fold
Jacaszek – Treny
Top 10 tracks
Appleblim/Peverelist - Over Here
Ricardo Villalobos - Minimoonstar
Shackleton - The Rope Tightens
Four Tet - Swimmer
Omar-S - Psychotic Photosynthesis
John Roberts – Hesitate
Sascha Funke – Mango Remixes
Lee Jones – Soon EP
Scuba – Mutual Antipathy Remixes
Shackleton – Death is Not Final
My take: Fuck the dull stuff. (Yes, there was lots, as always.) Fuck the retro tendencies. (Yes, they were strong.) Critique is fine, but if it becomes a reflex or a substitute for description, then it threatens to turn into unproductive whinging. If, in 2008, we do have a problem, it's with venues, with distribution and with the detachment of internet-based listening audiences from club-based dancing audiences. But I've spoken about that elsewhere, at length. And meanwhile, in different places all around the world, there's all this incredible music being made: now more than ever. I can think of five sound/fields that were unequivocably amazing this year.
- The raw grooves of artists like STL, Omar-S and Newworldaquarium. All of these artists (and others like them) released records that were incredibly personal and deep: deep because they exposed the almost uncomfortably intimate connection that generated in the headspace between their idiosyncratic grooves. You only have to listen to Steffi's recent podcasts to hear how powerful and personal this sound can be when stitched together.
- What we SSGs have taken to calling either "headfuck" or "mindfuck" techno, our title for the trance-y—because actually hypnotic, not because cheesy—sounds of artists like Donato Dozzy, Mike Parker and Cio D'Or, all of whom produced some amazing tracks and played incredible sets all around the world, which SSGs (and RA) proudly offered a snapshot of.
- The Ostgut sound. The motto of the famous Japanese clothing store Beams is "basic and exciting." I can't think of a more apt description for what all the Ostgut-affiliated artists have produced this year. In full flight, it's techno that's got the rush, roll and drop of the old school, but listen at lower volumes and you appreciate the entirely new sense of slowness and space as carefully thought out and finely wrought as the most detailed electronica. Not that you'd notice (or care) that when it's overwhelming you on a big system—and that's a beautiful thing.
- Skull Disco. Which is really a genre as much as a label name. 'Cos this is not really dubstep anymore, nor is it techno, electronica, dub—this is something wholly new and completely exciting.
- The incredibly fertile crossover that's occurring between minimal and dub techno and the dubstep-related sounds of T++, Peverelist, Appleblim, Scuba, Martyn and 2562. In 2006, when dubstechno (as I was awkwardly calling it) emerged, there were definite intimations of a faddish panflash, but the swift maturation has seen some of 2008's best EPs produced in a new form neither exhausted nor captured by the existing categories. And this is just the beginning.
From: Ronan Fitzgerald
To: Peter Chambers, Philip Sherburne
Hi Philip and Peter,
If I began by saying 2008 was "a bad year," this might prompt people to list off releases they feel contradict that idea. I'd probably agree that many of their choices were great records. The problem is that there's a level electronic music fans can reach where there's no such thing, where every year is "business as usual" or where every established artist is "still doing it." Dance music in 2008 felt religious, with a line from Catholic mass ("as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end amen") sometimes feeling like a silent postscript.
Ronan Fitzgerald's 2008 favourites
Jamie Lloyd - May I (Quarion Mix)
Damian Schwartz - 2020
Pitto - Sexvibe
Koljah - Antigua
Melon - Nitzi (In My Mind So Fine)
Johnny D - If You Read My Mind
Masida Yayo - Sleepless Night (Mossa Remix)
Lemos and Kreon - Lookoshere (Anthony Collins Mix)
Loco Dice - L'Esquina
Yann Solo - Borderline
Dilo - The Kittycat Track (Tolga Fidan Mix)
Tobias - I Can't Fight the Feeling
Radio Slave - Incognito
Alex Piccone - Floppy
Anthony Collins - Rabouine House (Seuil Mix)
Osunlade - Momma's Groove (Jimpster's Mix)
Dan Drastic - Slice of Life
Wouldbenice - Hallschlag
Dimitri Andreas - Run and Hide (Guido Schneider Mix)
Sebo K - Diva
Laps - Horko
Kreon - Jauce
Villalobos/Haze - Sunday Prayer
Telespazio - Guitar Down (Arto Mwambé Mix)
Andy Vaz - Bygone Times
It's also a big world. The sheer volume of music available makes the idea of a lean year seem ludicrous. There's nothing lean about consuming dance music in 2008. But equally ludicrous is the idea that writers talking about a malaise in dance music are saying they think there has not been a single good release. Equally ridiculous is the idea that words can be dismissed with lists of records.
That said, I actually liked lots of music in 2008. And I could list off 40 or 50 tracks that I loved. I was really moved by the effortlessly physical nature of some of the post-minimal house music that dominated. For all the grousing about who owns whose house, there was a real joy in the simplicity of records by the European Society for the Introduction of Boom-Tch to Mnml (you know who they are). By the end of the year you could have made a special chart of 2008 "party records"—brash lurid house tracks that were all about the body.
This endless stream of happy-go-lucky house music moved bodies more than minds, though, and writers seemed hard-pressed to find a narrative from which to praise music which seemed to work in an entirely visceral way. This actually felt the case almost across the board—from Berghain techno to Mannheim house—where functionality was the dominant trait. If you're not into thongs, functionality is pretty sexy. But frills and music go together a lot more comfortably.
Of course you could go to a club and just enjoy it. Hell, you could go to several clubs and just really fucking enjoy it, but looking back it's hard to escape the feeling that house and techno sank several fathoms to a place where few influences are able to get in or out. This is a worry for me. I value the presence of the outsider in dance music and I think a good sign of a scene's health is its ability to appeal to people in the overground. Sometimes I looked at dance music this year—the discourse, the debates, the extreme holiness of it all—and wondered how anyone who wasn't already immersed in it could find a way in. I still see the strongest potential for the music to reach out to new audiences in minimal, as evidenced by some of the new traditional musics finding their way into tracks from Greece or Romania or South America.
Similarly a record like Tolga Fidan's remix of Dilo on Einmaleins still felt more boldly futuristic than almost anything else, and a pleasant reminder that minimal never was as simple as the many abysmal clichés about hamsters farting on insects crawling on microphones which emerged long after it had morphed into something else.
producer make the best remix of the year?
Many critiques of the record acted as if the casual listener spends their time perpetually looking for the most expansive cinematically produced techno record ever made. The critic is then astonished that Johnny Casual in his perpetual ageless stupidity makes do with this chirpy Eritrean loop, while obviously his soul secretly but unconsciously screams out for hardware. A point was missed perhaps.
Meanwhile the reverence for all things German, like everything else, seemed to swing back towards purism this year. Words like "honesty" and "integrity" and "meaning" and "respect" seemed meaningless themselves, especially when used to describe Berghain or Hard Wax artists with utter reverence. It's not that this scene isn't valuable or these artists aren't worthy, it's just that reading non-German English speakers writing as if their style guide was the subtitles in "Feiern" began to wear thin by the end of the year.
It's not surprising though that language wore thin, because ultimately 2008 was a year in which—to me—there was very little to say about dance music, even the stuff you liked. If talking about dance music matters, then it was a year when sermons from the mount seemed more sickly than ever. Perhaps a coherent dance discourse is increasingly impossible and irrelevant, as an online world which allows users to inform themselves finally seems to have stabilized? In 2009 there may be even fewer stories to tell. For the vast majority of fans, this probably doesn't matter in the slightest.
From: Philip Sherburne
To: Peter Chambers, Ronan Fitzgerald
First off, Peter, I'm glad you opened this discussion on such an enthusiastic note. I know that all three of us ("geeks," as you rightly noted) have spent our fair share of prose this year fretting/critiquing/moaning/analyzing/whinging (pick your verb) re: the state of (electronic)/(dance) music in 2008. The very fact that I can't bring myself just to write "electronic dance music" and leave it at that suggests something, I think: all three of us, as writers, are obsessed with categories, and 2008 was a year in which a categorical approach to electronic/dance/music lost its footing.
I've been struck by the number of year-end roundups that have noted a lack of consensus in the broader pop landscape this year. But if the only consensus is that there's been a lack of consensus, fittingly, nobody can seem to agree whether that's good or bad. On NPR's All Songs Considered, Carrie Brownstein described a retreat from podium-thumping anthems into self-created worlds. (If she found the anthems missing, she clearly didn't attend many main-room DJ sets this year.) Another commentator on the same show described it as a "blah" year, which seems an odd assessment for a year gripped by a schizo swing between war, economic collapse and an election euphoria that spread far beyond the American electorate. (Shouldn't roller-coaster times present roller-coaster culture?) Drowned in Sound, also tacking into the winds of individualism, wrote that "2008 was less about them big everyone-has-a-pub-stool-opinion-on-'em records or mass moments of historical hysteria but more about the need for the inclination and ability to rummage in the very depths of every niche, to find your own personal favourites."
Philip Sherburne's 2008 favourites
Top 10 albums
01. Ricardo Villalobos - Vasco
02. Lucky Dragons - Dream Island Laughing Language
03. Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid - NYC
04. Osborne - Osborne
05. Thomas Brinkmann - When Horses Die
06. Juana Molina - Un Dia
07. Hatchback - Colors of the Sun
08. Jasmina Maschina - The Demolition Series
09. Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair
10. Bruno Pronsato - Why Can't We Be Like Us
Top 10 tracks
01. DJ Koze - I Want to Sleep
02. Invisible Conga People - Cable Dazed
03. Move D - Drøne
04. Zomby - The Lie
05. Rustie - Zig-Zag
06. Sety - Morgane
07. Zomby - Spliff Dub (Rustie Remix)
08. Tobias. - I Can't Fight the Feeling
09. Los Updates - Pictures of You (Tobias. Remix)
10. Joker & Rustie - Play Doe
But was it really so grim? Looking at RA's top 15 remixes, I see an impressively diverse list that splits between populist pleasures and avant investigations. Sure, "depth" and dub are the prevalent tendencies, but virtually every track suggests a disparate approach tilting into a different dimension. Even more instructive is a label ranking that successfully represents the dynamism of the current scene. There are a few labels there that feel a bit obligatory—I love Kompakt, Spectral Sound and Dial, but I don't think that any of them had their best years in 2008, neither in terms of their own development nor a contribution to a greater narrative. But interlaced with picks like those are imprints like Mule, Workshop, Hyperdub, Circus Company, Modern Love, Skull Disco
and Ostgut Ton—a mix of young labels currently setting the tone and older outfits coming into their own. You might possibly have been able to assemble this same list last year, but not necessarily in 2006—and even the veteran labels, I feel, placed this year for different reasons than they might have in years prior. And just from the sense of the climate right now, in clubs, shops and on the net, I sense that 2009's rankings could be very different.
I'm running out of space here, but I think that there's a bit of instructive constrast-and-compare to be done between minimal and dubstep in 2008. What made dubstep so exciting was a tendency to throw out the rule book—after a few years where the official line on dubstep seemed to be that it was calcifying into a turgid, half-step wobble, the most inspired producers switched up tempos, timbres and beat structures, drawing from techno, house, bleep, old-school hip-hop and new-school crunk to map out previously unexplored quadrants in dubstep's rapidly expanding universe. What minimal seems to be lacking is precisely that esoteric bent. You could hear it in certain producers, of course—particularly in the strains that Peter identified as "headfuck" techno and the primitivist, raw grooves approach. But house and techno, in general, seemed satisfied with their formats, recycling and refining the same beat structures. Just consider the fact that Roman IV's two reissues this year sound essentially identical, in structure and mood, to numerous house records released this year—13 years after the original Playhouse releases. If that doesn't suggest that house and techno are treading water, I don't know what does.
Since we're talking about discoveries and surprises, what were the records, artists and labels that shocked you out of complacency this year?
(I'd write more, but I've got to go shepherd my mother around Berlin today. No, we won't be stopping at Bar25.)
Yours in syncopation,
From: Peter Chambers
To: Ronan Fitzgerald, Philip Sherburne
Dear Ronan and Philip,
I was really interested where Ronan said that "[f]or writers it became hard to find a narrative from which to praise music which seemed to work in an entirely visceral way" and, later, "ultimately 2008 was a year in which there was very little to say about dance music, even the stuff you liked."
I must say I find this quite vexing coming from a person who keeps a blog, comments on other blogs and agrees to engage in a debate about the year in groove-based electronic music. You say there's nothing to talk about, but you're willing to talk about "having nothing to talk about" for a few thousand words.
The problem, of course, is that once those webs are of a stable "size," they tend toward insularity. We all end up "in the loop." I mention this at length because I think it answers both why Ronan is so bored and Philip is so awed by the incredibly fragmented nature of listening audiences these days. Ronan mentioned that it might be hard for outsiders to get into groove-based electronic music, but I think it's sometimes just as hard for insiders to get out of it. Very often these days getting out of the loop is more bothersome than trying to stay in it.
For something (re)productive to occur, there has to be a conjugation, right? It's about the Bug and the Beehive, the Dead Bears and the Flying Lotus, Weisemann and Ramadanman, etc. This is new, it's productive and it's happening right now. But as far as comfort and change goes, I also think that people have unreasonable expectations of innovation from house and techno. House/techno is genre music. It's not just that we have we flicked through all the plug-ins, running through all combinations until the mature style has stabilised and congealed. House is now (and was almost always) a stable genre/code that anyone can engage with, and as with other genres, it's much more about playing between the rules than trying to break all of them all the time (and getting disappointed when that doesn't happen). I would be a foolish reader of crime novels if I expected each one to surpass the innovations of the last. But I think that, if I was expecting something like that, then I would be missing the point. 'Cos house isn't a feeling, it's a formula—and that's alright.
Deeper than thou
Who's to blame for the resurgence of deep house? We can't help but take some of it, considering we published no less than three features with "deep" in the title and countless more about artists working inside the genre in 2008. A sampling…
Underground Quality: Jus-Ed
"Sometimes we only had enough [money] to get coffee and a muffin."
The good, the bad and the deep: Rick Wade
"As time has gone on, a lot of the people I used to deal with have gone out of business."
Johnny D: Somewhere in between
"Personally speaking 'Orbitalife' is, of course, my record of the year."
Lawrence: The constant gardener
"I think we've always had strange records, or at least strange tracks on Dial."
Move D: Eine kleine sinceremusik
"Music deserves more space for your own interpretation and imagination."
Move D—who I would argue does have real depth—depth is mostly about sincerity, and sincerity is all about taking music (and yourself) seriously. It's both his strength and weakness. It's also his style.
And style is important: AC/DC, Nirvana, Theo Parrish—they all have their own inimitable style. Interestingly, Lawrence (and Dial) did, but increasingly they're just polishing the bonnet of Detroit with black Hanseatic gloss. John Roberts' release on Dial this year was the only one that was outstanding, and part of what was outstanding about it was the way that it announced its own uniqueness. Would you confuse his EP with any other? No. Could the same be said about Oslo (notice it's interchangeable enough that we can just use the word to refer to it)? I don't think so.
And this is basically the problem with the lazy "deep" (but actually just minimal house) a la Dive, and yes, even (maybe especially) Oslo—with the exception of Guillaume & The Coutu Dumonts. It's bland. And it has no self-identity. It borrows everything... which is fine in itself, until it doesn't use the borrowing to develop in its own direction. It's just a big polishing...which is why the Oslo catalogue is great as "tracks," but will never amount to anything memorable and will date very, very quickly. Oslo is as much '08 as Magda's Dancing Machine was perfectly '06.... and, I have to say, I think the trancing proggy minimal of Eulberg, Holden and Trentemøller were perfectly '05. (Thank God that played itself out.)
What I really like about the Ostgut-related artists is the way developing their own idiom, but they're doing so with a deep recognition/knowledge of the past AND a deep understanding of house/techno as genre music. More generally it should be said that the very best tracks have a unique relation to time: they both capture something of the now AND express something timeless. As I once said about Redshape (and as he quoted on his MySpace! Sorry, but I was really excited when I saw that): "The future of the past never sounded more contemporary."
From: Ronan Fitzgerald
To: Peter Chambers, Philip Sherburne
Looking over your e-mails, I'm particularly interested in Philip's comments that "There was also a critical consensus, often espoused by folks like Peter and myself, that there was something wrong with this picture—that this new-old deep house was fundamentally incomplete, unsatisfying." If there was such a consensus, then what did it define as "new-old deep house"?
I ask this because I know that both Philip and Peter have batted for the likes of STL or Move D and I'm interested to know how they're excluded from the definition "new-old deep house," or why. And, if they are excluded, who is included? Do you both agree? What are the negative characteristics of this "new-old deep house" genre? What does it do or what does it fail to do?
Perhaps "new-old deep house" is from Switzerland, and is made by Mountain People or Agnès or Baaz? Are we talking about that wispy almost trancey sound that's been endlessly popular? Or perhaps we need to look at Mannheim, where Johnny D, Robert Dietz, Markus Fix and all the rest were also making "new-old deep house." But then, there aren't a lot of Mountain People in Mannheim, are there?
2008: The year that anonymity died
One of the most prominent dubstep producers was unmasked this year when he revealed his identity on MySpace after The Sun asked its readers to join the manhunt when he was nominated for The Mercury Prize.
Slowhouse / Arto Mwambé
German magazine De:Bug unmasked these anonymous deep house producers, revealing them not to be the old Chicago house producers or Burkinabé outsider artists that we wanted them to be. Bummer.
I think "new-old deep house" just doesn't cut it as a dismissal because I don't know what it's dismissing. Or perhaps I do have a vague idea what it's dismissing, but feel it's a lazy and meaningless term to describe a type of music which everyone agrees is awful… despite being unable to agree completely about who is making it.
Anyway, I personally liked the cheapness and almost brash feel to the work of someone like Kreon, from Greece. His recent track "Jauce" sounds like some weird fusion of '90s pop-house and minimal. It seems a really strong about face for populist house/techno and I'm not ashamed to say that I like the points where the underground can meet the mainstream in way that feels open. I wish there were more of these in 2008.
I also think there was actually some really interesting music which I'd have to tag as minimal this year. With practically everyone burning the m word at the stake, artists like Tolga Fidan or Laps—or even Haze/Villalobos in their Contexterrior excursions—reminded me how exciting and different that minimal house sound can be when it's done well.
One thing that I'm suspicious of, though, is this "headfuck techno" sound. I don't see it as a real hope, because I don't think Donato Dozzy is doing anything different now to what he was doing back in 2005 or 2006. I don't recall huge praise for him back then, so I'm wondering why his time has come now? (I'm genuinely wondering, not facetiously asking!) I can't help but feel that it's an easier and safer thing for a critic to praise harder techno or dub techno or older established deep house acts in the current climate because there's so much leftover distaste for minimal.
It's for these reasons—a distaste for seriousness I suppose—that I'm backing more shambolic, psychedelic or even quirky music this year. dOP, Guillaume & The Coutu Dumonts, almost all of the Oslo/Cécille artists, Seuil whom I mentioned, Alex Picone, Pitto and Arto Mwambé all had great years. On the deeper side of things I want to single out Melon's "Nitzi (In My Mind So Fine)," as one of the best examples of European deep house as you'll hear in any year—and a singularly intense battering ram of melody.
Andy Vaz's "Bygone Times" and Oracy's "Hold Me" were the year's acceptable face of piety, Koljah's "Antigua" was probably the biggest "anthem" of 2008 and yet seems to have passed without a great deal of comment despite being played everywhere. Vidab—the label which released it—put out several other very strong releases. Quarion's remix of Jamie Lloyd's "May I" showed that small can be very beautiful, and seemed more wide-eyed and innocent than practically anything else.
I hope that outlining what I did feel enthusiastic about and what excited me, in answer to Phil's question, helps to back up my initial assertion that there was lots of good music released in 2008, even if I had reservations about the discourse and the world in which it's written about.
As for whether I think writing about music is futile in the current climate. I think many writers may face this idea at a given point and I think it's OK to be open about it. I'll admit to feeling cynical about writing this year, because then the reader can choose to dismiss my comments as the rantings of a burnout! It's for this reason I took a break from blogging.
Hope you're both well,
From: Philip Sherburne
To: Peter Chambers, Ronan Fitzgerald
Ronan, I meant to respond earlier about my use of the term "new-old deep house." (Excuse the ungainliness of the phrase—it wasn't something I intended to catch on.) You're right to call me out on my strawmann-ish citation of the "critical consensus," but I think it's self-evident that there was plenty of discussion as to what "deep" meant, or what "house" meant. And that discussion wasn't limited to the blogosphere; every time an artist gave their record with a title or a vocal sample invoking depth or house music itself, they weighed in with an opinion.
DeepChord. Deepgroove. Enliven Deep Acoustics. DJ Rasoul's "Untitled Deepness." Patrice Scott's "Deep Again." Tony Lionni's "Deep Sea Diver." Jay Haze's "Lost in Deep Space." FLSK's "Esencia Deep." (Both same tempo, same key.) Rick Wade's The Good, the Bad and the Deep. Sinan Baymak's "Deep Morning," for Deeper Shades. Deep Vibes, of course. Radio Slave's "8 Bit Romance Deepest Slave Remix" for Florian Meindl, a track that's nothing but self-conscious about being spacy and deep. If anything was certain in 2008, it's that people seemed really interested in tags like these, which only makes a track title from DJ Sprinkles's Midtown 120 Blues all the more intriguing: "House Music Is Controllable Desire You Can Own." 2008, it seems, was all about owning—and controlling—desire.
When people are making such strong claims to roots, I think you can detect a certain drift in the culture. And I guess, when you ask me why I preferred STL and Move D over many artists working in a similar idiom, it's because they (and others liked them) seemed to tap a certain wooziness that made perfect sense: playing with a well-worn form (shoomping chords, gurling bass lines, hissing hi-hats, the works) and warping it to the point of turning into something else. You're here, you're not here. It's just Defamiliarization, English Lit 101.
But I'm not trying to be a pain in the ass; there was plenty of great house music this year, of every stripe. You rightly mentioned Koljah's "Antigua": it was stupendous, turning an easygoing piano-house track into something with marble heft. Don't forget Kalabrese's "Elleli" remix for Madioko N'Rafika and his unbalanced "Luvely" rework of The Tape vs. RQM. Phictiv, where Kalabrese released his 118 EP in late 2007, turned up an EP that probably would have been somewhere in the upper regions of my charts if I'd gotten around to listening to it soon enough. Crowdpleaser & Gregorhythme's GYGSAW is all tight, trippy funk, scooped out with little melon balls of empty space and ragged around the edges. (And finally, how about those voices? The tribal wailing thing has been done to death, but here it went all slippery and weird.)
It'd also be criminal of me to neglect to mention Eve White's second 12-inch for Contentismissing, New You. "On the Move"—featuring a "Jack your body" sample that sounds a lot like Kalabrese—took a classic house bounce and absolutely lit it up: keys pumping, drums running hot, and synthesizers glowing like the coils on a space ship. There's almost something DFA about it, or what DFA might sound like if they nudged Carl Craig and Urban Tribe higher on their list of influences. (Or Invisible Conga People if they leaned more Basic Channel.) I can't put my finger on it, and I don't want to sound like one of those analog do-gooders; something about Eve White's sound just sounds warmer, as though it were run through a tube amp and came out baked and flaky. STL had that sensation too, though his plates often smelled like electrical fire and burnt asbestos.
White is the new black
The self-professedly "deep" stuff in 2008 often tended towards an unapologetic revival of Afro-American house tropes—at the most basic level, a recycling of the tracky rhythms and pumping, syncopated chords of KMS (which is hardly a bad model to follow). But there was also a tinge of minstrelsy visible in the prevalence of preacher-man vocals (Layo & Bushwacka's MLK-sampling "Now's the Time," Âme's use of Last Poets in their Fabric mix). Granted, "minstrelsy" is a loaded word, which I don't mean to employ in an entirely pejorative context. And electronic dance music is a largely Afro-American form in its roots, so who could argue with white, European (or American) producers paying homage to their musical forebears?
Still, you had to wonder when presented with projects like the Chocolettes, an Afro-Brazilian side project of Michel Baumann of Soulphiction. Don't get me wrong—I love Baumann's work, I love his labels Philpot and Phil-E. And you can't necessarily fault the guy for wearing his heart on his sleeve—Philpot is named for Lawrence Philpot (aka Larry Levan), while the moniker Soulphiction speaks directly to a paradoxical quest for Afro-American authenticity (aka "soul") in European electronic dance music. But—and maybe this is very politically correct and American of me—I find it odd when white folks (no matter how good their music) are picking names like "the Chocolettes" or slathering their music in black American a cappellas and nobody brings up the subject of race. Especially in a year in which a mixed-race, multi-cultural figure won the presidency of the United States. I'm not trying to be provocative—it just seems like a strange omission from the discourse.
dOP. dOP! I hate typing that, but boy do I love them. Everyone talks about "Just a Man," which is indeed righteous, but I find myself rooting for their lopsided tribal stuff like their collaboration with Sibiri Samaké, "Foly," which reminds me a little of Crowdpleaser's remix of Und's "Rodeo" in its arid open spaces. Likewise, "Panik" goes a bit cabaret for my tastes, but "Ikarus" has everything I love in wooden percussion, pneumatic grooves and door-spring detailing. I will say this: they may need to find a different vocal trick soon; the stacked harmonies are getting predictable. But they still work, which is the important thing.
Let's talk about Mike Dunn. Why was everybody repping "Phreaky MF"? My absolute go-to jam this year (thanks, Richard Carnes!) was "This Here Is House Music." Talk about defining house! The shout-outs to the heroes make a strong enough claim to authority but what makes the track work for me is how positively zany it sounds, what with those jingling electric guitars and a periodic steel-drum break. Let's be honest, these dutiful recitations can get a bit rote. With Dunn, though, it's spirited, jubilant. Not to sound like a sap, but if you worried for a second about the state of house in 2008, you just needed to listen to this. I'm also a big fan of "Na Na Na (I Walks With God)," which got devotional, minimal, Rhodes-led garage just right. And did nobody notice how similar its hook was to Mr. V's absolutely bananas "Mr. Bongo (Hello Children)"? Oh, the irony.
Pépé Bradock. Brothers' Vibe. The Mole. Osborne. Lots of great stuff on a classic tip, depending on your definition of classic—and maybe it's that discrepancy that made it interesting. A lot of musicians felt like revisionists this year, as though—once again—inserting their own definition of house music into the pages of a dogeared book and hoping that theirs would stick out for the next reader. And that's OK! We need strong musical personalities to mix things up, push things forward, all those trite but necessary prepositional metaphors. As much a storyteller as the DJ, the producer is confabulating a history of house music that contains the past and the future all in one. History matters, because it's already happened; the successful artist is just locating our precise location in the ideal present. It's a beautiful thing, really.
From: Peter Chambers
To: Ronan Fitzgerald, Philip Sherburne
I'd like to open my closer with a far from final word on history. We're not standing at some unprecedented moment in the unfolding of a single musical history—we're in the middle of multiple histories. It's a crazy conjuncture, this one, full of new things emerging, spinning up and flying off at all kinds of whizzing speeds. Things are out of phase: the loops are lumping, but that's because all kinds of things are conjugating. They're doing it now.
Top five 2008 RA Podcasts
When you're down and troubled and need a helping hand... RA.109 is like a comfortable seat in front of the fire with a cup of hot chocolate. So good, soooo good.
Summer got hotter with RA.114. The Belgian duo served up perfectly pitched disco pop, a genre busting masterpiece, effortlessly punctuated by their own remixes.
David Moufang has been making house music for 16 years (look up Kunststoff). Talent runs deep. For RA.125 he avoided his acclaimed album material to deliver a stunning live set of largely unreleased material.
The now retired Skull Disco was one of dubstep's leading lights. But the label was never just dubstep, and in RA.110 Appleblim revealed a housier undercurrent. Forward-thinking music.
RA.106 was two drunken Frenchman singing, crooning, playing live, in the rain and making fun of minimal. What's not to love?
I think Terre is admirably wrong about Madonna—of course he has to be true to his memories, but then, so do I to mine. I heard "Vogue" in all innocence as a child, and only learnt the betrayal it represented many years after I was dancing round the living room with my sister and cousins. And because it's still a track that transforms any room it's played in—I've jacked enough mp3 players at backyard BBQs to have proved that theory time and time again. But this is part of the story too, no doubt? For all of us, our memories are inalienable. We can't just separate "the sound" from the place and time that first gave it our meaning. We have to bear all these things in mind. When making music, sometimes it's important to remember this. At other times, it's even more important to forget and unlearn.
Thaemlitz perfectly evokes the alienated insider, a person with a history in house so deep the pleasure and pain it's caused him is enough to give you pause for thought. But this year, it was also the opposite that got to me, music made by those outsiders who've been welcomed in to the hallowed halls of form and code and genre, regardless of what they draped their music in or whether it was cloaked in something else. Eight or more years ago it was Sasu Ripatti's first Luomo album that really did this to me—and all this from a person who not only had never been barred from a club, but who professed no particular desire to enter one.
This year, Four Tet's amazing Ringer EP worked the same trick: applying the structural formulas of groove-based electronic music to something with the sonic stamps of post rock. Pivot might have achieved something similar, had O Soundtrack My Heart not come across like an admission of lost property. Pivot might have come off cold and calculating, but they were trying something. Say to yourself: try something now. Take a risk. Make a mistake. You might end up with something as great as the Fuck Buttons incredible Street Horrsing album, Gang Gang Dance, or the heaving creak of Ezekiel Honig's tired old pianos sneezing a woozy melody to the dusty thump made by an aluminium can being blown down the road. And once you've opened yourself up to trying something you might want to get really fluxed up and let the structures turn into trapdoors, shadows, caverns and choruses of static, like on Tim Hecker and Aidan Barker's amazing Fantasma Parastasie, or Stephen Mathieu's Radioland, which I'm now addicted to. How can music fill you and purge you at the same time? Is Radioland even music? Have you ever been to electric Radioland? Don't forget to write if you go.
I remember reading an interview with Eno a while back where he was talking about how what distinguishes each pop record from the last is its "sound": regardless of the repeated progression of chords or the shopworn loop of fashions and formulas, we're still dealing with recorded music, and for me, the particular and inexhaustible fascination it exerts is that no two records sound alike, no matter how much they try to. This is even (especially) true of minimal techno, much as my mother doubts it.
Where is all this music taking place? Eno in interview was talking piped music, something like hearing Hall and Oates while selecting muesli at the supermarket. Terre is somewhere near Tokyo on his piano, remembering being barred in NYC or beaten up in Missouri. Meanwhile, here I am in Melbourne, with the weakest of links to any kind of local "scene" discussing music made in Italy on a blog I run with two people: one in Wales, the other in Tokyo. Locality is a funny thing for me. So is scene. If everyone went out as much as me, there would be no techno scene—anywhere. I don't think any of these online "localities" can ever be a substitute for meat and bones by the bassbin, nor should they be.
Nonetheless, I think we've got all these new and interesting spaces opening up, and at their best they can foster new, interesting and different relations to music and people. 2008 saw an enormous multiplication of partial spaces for music. Music is possible and pleasurable in so many ways and places now. Of course there's a downside to piped music, to endless streams, to the unending shuffle of low-quality mp3s played through tinny little earbuds, but nonetheless, musical forms are on the move, and they're moving in several interesting directions, right now, here, wherever that is.
From: Ronan Fitzgerald
To: Peter Chambers, Philip Sherburne
Hi Peter & Philip,
I'm going to have one last stab at discussing this "new/old deep house" thing because I think it is one of the most fractious points of discussion of the year.
I can't help but feel that distinguishing Move D and STL from other new/old deep house acts on the basis that they "seemed to tap a certain wooziness that made perfect sense: playing with a well-worn form...and warping it to the point of turning into something else" only makes them feel more similar to the most successful acts in 2008.
I mean, the very description feels like a loose primer for everything and anything that happened in 2008 post-minimal house music, rather than a distinctive feature of those two acts. I'm pushing this because I think the most natural distinction between Move D and STL, and say Johnny D or Pitto or Sebo K, is not a musical one but one of perceived authenticity.
I'm reminded of a quote from Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities: "When looking at a set of ideas in action, it draws its supplies of additional troops and intellectual matériel not only from its own depots but also from those of its opponents." Which is to say: Ideas sometimes need their inverses to be effective. Or, rather, an underground without a mainstream is like a hero without a villain.
Whatever your take on 2008, it's hard to deny that the hyped sound—minimal, or whatever you'd like call it—moved in a housier direction. As a result, the scene feels more contracted: An underground that's been plodding along for years is suddenly in vogue, as Patrice Scott shares Beatport baskets with Petre Inspirescu, and the big name DJs mix and match across genre, era and aesthetic.
So perhaps the reason the gatekeepers have perished is that people can buy music with more independence than ever. They're no longer at the mercy of the one or two buyers at their local record store. Dance music has become a virtual village in which everyone's vast vegetable patches encroach on each other like Venn diagrams. An 18-year-old in Romania who discovers Omar-S or Basic Channel on Beatport may do so free from any mythology or backstory. And while someone who has collected the 12-inches for years—and is in love with the mythology of such an act—may be horrified at the thought of that music being next to some minimal track on a CD-R, this also means more people are hearing more music. Isn't that undeniably positive? Anyone who wants to hear a record should have access to it if they are willing to pay an agreed amount. After that they can like it alongside whatever the hell they choose.
The 2008 RAzzy awards
Party Theme of the year
Sharam as a gunslinger? This concept was DOA.
Promotional Photo of the year
Lars Borges is one of the best photographers that we've seen working today, but the photo set of Mathew Jonson was one of the most ridiculous things we saw all year.
Marketing Campaign of the year
Could it be anything other than The Cube? The idea of connecting audiences is a great one, but did it have to be presented in such a hilarious way?
Interview of the year
Deadmau5, a guy who simply wants to produce music in the privacy of his own home, called DJs "c*nts" and then was surprised that the interviewer would "pick out all the stupid bits" for publication. Really?
Festival of the year
Cops, venue changes and nearly 1,000 user comments. You can't help but feel for the people behind the ill-fated NYC Minitek festival.
We need to think this way. This kind of bipartisan and multiplicitous analysis of how things are happening is vital, especially when we're discussing the industry. As much as I want to read vivid and utterly subjective writing about music, it's also clear there are real economic issues on the horizon for dance music, and I think readers should be constantly wary about whether a writer has analysed data logically and fairly, or analysed it to prove a negative or positive point about a format. Here's a clue: Anyone who sounds sure of themselves is probably lying. Rest assured there'll be plenty of articles for you to bring these standards to bear on, as more and more labels stop producing vinyl.
Finally I want to head a 2009 irritant off at the pass, one which has already been gathering steam. I'm talking about lazy recession romanticism slipping into music writing. You know what I'm talking about. All I will say is this: If you think a global recession is really going to mean better parties, better drugs and better music, then perhaps you're in for a shock. Or to paraphrase Irvine Welsh: "It's all very well saying money is crass and vulgar until you don't have any."
On that joyous note I'll wish everyone reading and Philip/Peter a happy new year!
From: Philip Sherburne
To: Peter Chambers, Ronan Fitzgerald
So now it falls to me to wrap up this tangle of earworms.
Ronan had a hard time finding cohesion in dance music this year, and then, more personally (I suspect, because I've gone through it too), felt like 2008 "was a year in which there was very little to say about dance music, even the stuff you liked." Peter offered a few narratives that suggested otherwise—narratives that resonated with me, because hey, I like headfuck techno and raw-grooves primitivism. More than that, I like narratives (must be my background in English lit). But I also like contrarianism, and I have no problem with critics writing from their gut. I won't deny that my writing has one foot in the music itself and another in the mess or ecstasy of my personal life at any given moment.
That's part of what made my year in music so scattered—and, here towards the end, so revelatory, as settling into a new apartment in a new city (Berlin) led to an extended period of home-listening, guided by meandering Internet explorations, rather than the round-the-clock clubbing I'd anticipated (with some trepidation). Peter and Ronan are both right in at least one thing—all of us dance music types could do well to step outside our usual circles every now and then, if for no other reason than to find new rhythms, timbres and tones to slot into our default templates. Ideally, those templates will warp with the additions; I'd sum up the current ennui within house and techno as a legitimate questioning of whether we're seeing diminishing returns from a musical style that has so severely limited its palette and rhythmic foundations. I love dance music's self-mutating game of theme and variations, but that doesn't mean that we can't ask for a little innovation along with the endless novelty.
I'm feeling less partisan than I used to, partly out of a feeling that the party (no pun intended, though the double meaning fits perfectly) let me down. I think Brian Eno's concept of "scenius" is useful here. Dance music always follows a dialectic between individual genius and collective inspiration, or "scenius," and for my money, the post-minimal scenius isn't terribly inspiring at the moment. To generalize wildly, what I'm hearing from the more functionalist end of the club-music spectrum is increasingly workmanlike, increasingly professionalized. That conservatism is reflected in the ballooning system of DJ feedback, where tracks live and die based upon who "supports" them; it's a gigantic circle jerk, a literal feedback loop, where mutual congratulation is the name of the game because it's perceived to be the only way to sell records.
I can admit this because I've participated in the system, both sending my own feedback and also publicizing others' comments about my own music. As for the latter, you know what? It feels skeezy. And when you start listening too much to what other DJs and producers say about your work—especially when some of those top jocks seem to heap glowing praise on just about every track that crosses their decks—you stop trusting your gut. From a listener's standpoint, this self-congratulation all starts to seem so dutiful: DJs pledging each other their support partly out of habit, partly out of courtesy, and partly out of the reason that this veneer of success and solidarity is the only way to keep the music marketplace's great Ponzi scheme going. Ronan talked about the difficulty of outsiders getting into electronic dance music, and Peter countered with the difficulty of insiders getting out. I think that vast sea of DJ feedback is a nice symbol for the moat that's keeping both camps cooped up where they are.
I used to resent what Diplo told Pitchfork about minimal techno: "I can't hear it more than one or two songs at a time. I mean, I go to a club in Berlin and I want to kill myself." But these days I kind of see where he's coming from. When the rewards are apparent only to deep insiders, why shouldn't outsiders decline to get excited about the music? Oddly, house and techno's most successful tendency in 2008—a carnival air of unrelenting exuberance—might be just what's needed to bring outsiders into the fold. And that's great! But for the moment, to bring this back to my own tastes, I'll take a spliff, my couch and DJ /rupture's Uproot mix over hearing "Trompeta" amidst a packed throng.
Anyway, house and techno don't need my defense. I'm ready to renounce expertise, with its implications of being forever attuned to the minutest vacillations of a given corner of the music world, in favor of being a better listener. Infatuated as I currently am with a certain spectrum of sounds falling outside the four-to-the-floor, 128BPM sector of the club-music universe, I'm less interested in pinpointing them and roping them off into a territory I can conquer, than in figuring out what makes them tick—and then tracing that clockwork logic laterally across the broader musical landscape. What if we differentiated musical genres not based on tempo and beat structure but on other, more difficult to define parameters?
Not to navel-gaze too much, but I'm increasingly interested in the how, when and with whom of listening. Ronan doesn't want to see tossed-off recession journalism, and I'm right with him. But I do wonder if modes of listening are shifting again, or will soon. With the economy the way it is, I don't foresee nearly as much club-going and festival-hopping this year. And when you stay in, you listen to different music, and you listen differently. Chilling at home with my girlfriend, I find myself flicking around more than ever before, checking out short sets of songs from Awesome Tapes from Africa or following electro-cumbia's curious circuitry across YouTube. This is what I'm getting at when I mean I'm feeling less partisan: La Tigresa del Oriente and Delfin Quishpe aren't exactly artists I want to throw my support behind, but observed (and admired!) from a little distance, these diversions offer a kind of entertainment, and even food for thought, that a lot of club music, and club culture, might not.
I feel the same way about Spoek Mathambo's "H.I.V.I.P. Dezemba Liazonz Mix," which I chanced upon last night via The Fader. What are we to make of this? A South African producer (intriguingly profiled here by Jace Clayton, aka DJ /rupture) pulling together kwaito, funky and even antique electro from Cabaret Voltaire. When DJ Mujava's "Township Funk" first began circulating earlier this year, I was too quick to dismiss it as a sort of one-off, fetishized specifically for its exotic origins. But listening to Spoek Mathambo's spacious, wonky funk, well, you start to wonder if there isn't some serious scenius bubbling up in southern Africa after all. (Whatever the case, I think Clayton's perspective is instructive: "I don't care what 'Westerners' fetishize. They've been fetishizing black people for centuries now, who cares? You simply exist in all your complexity and let them deal with it. […] Musicians like getting paid to play, they like getting credited for their work, and if they're singing or rapping, they want you listen to their words. It's simple. I think Western fetishization is an awesome thing if it means, say, more African bands can travel and make a living outside of their home countries. Who's to judge the difference between fetishization and interest? How many kids fetishize Björk or Radiohead?"
I'm sorry, I'm probably starting to ramble, and in any case, I seem to have left 2008 in the dust. But that's just the thing: if I've gotten anything out of this discussion (and the last couple of months of year-end assessments in general) it's that I could care less about looking backwards. There's so much out there, and I've barely scratched the surface! My friend and colleague Michaelangelo Matos has announced that this year he'll hew to the self-made rules of a hypothetical "Slow Listening Movement," designed to help counteract the helplessness critics feel in the face of the digital-music deluge. I admire his discipline and wish that I could stick to it myself. But right now, I've got some catching up to do. I promise to share the notes from my travels with you guys. And from you two and all the other writers out there, I look forward to a year of dispatches from all those Radiolands we have yet to discover.
Take it from the top,