|RA Poll: Top 5 producers of 2007
Peter Chambers hands out the bouquets for production genius in 2007.
In a year when many people have begun to question whether the music industry has a future, or even a pulse, dance music has the conspicuous advantage of being a pulse. There is something fundamentally unkillable about the endlessly returning beat. Or is there? Much that seemed fairly certain even a year ago is now in conspicuous doubt. What we can be sure of is that the way we distribute, share and listen to music is fundamentally altering what a recording means, what it’s worth and what it is. One of the key common factors of the producers in RA’s top five list this year is the way in which they’ve all skilfully negotiated this emerging post-label, post-‘selling recordings’ constellation. All of them have very strong, unique sound signatures, all of them are highly valued remixers, all of them are respected (and handsomely paid) as DJs, and all of them (bar one, to some extent) operate through multiple musical personas.
The arts of making, playing and remixing records give sense to what a producer does, but in 2007, so much of turning this sense into success has become a matter of juggling all these roles at once, and making it look easy. The absence of Pantha du Prince from this list indicates that it’s not enough to have an ecstatically received album in January if you don’t follow it up with remixes in May, August and October. Had Ewan Pearson produced a well-received artist album, or even released three high-profile EPs of original material, I have no doubt he would have nudged his way into the top five, which eluded him by three places. If Andy Stott did regular remix work…who knows? Andy, are you reading this? Wanna make more money? And where the hell was Carl Craig? Now that’s an anomaly. Somehow, consistently, and despite Craig’s ubiquity, few if any of the voters awarded him the heavily weighted top votes that might have catapulted him into the running. What this indicates is how much polls like this are not ‘talent contests’ or literary awards, but weird aggregates of people’s perceptions, each based on imprecise guestimations, hunches, and gut instinct. But somehow, despite (or maybe because of) this, none of the top five listings are surprising, and all seem deserving, quibble though most of us might over the precise place of our personal favourites.
One of the other distinctive common factors among this year’s top five is how much of their personality is in their work, and how personal it is – each of their musical guises has a very strong, easily identifiable ‘sound personality’. They treat every sound with care, as if every element makes the difference – and, of course, they’re right. In 2007, how could anyone say that the personality of the producer is irrelevant? What places each of these artist’s work above and beyond many other otherwise similar contenders is the instant recognition-effects their big tracks have, and the way their remixes achieve an unforgettable impact with memorable themes. You could say it’s a victory of style and idiosyncrasy over the production-line mentality of a lot of the middling producers. These top five producers are NOT generic. The best of their music has something weird, touched, even magical about it. But, at the same time, these are all producers who are extremely productive, who can churn out half-a-dozen charting remixes a year (all with their unique stamp) in between producing their own work and making their bills-paying DJ appearances. And that is the art of being an RA top five producer in 2007. A repeated letter in your real name would appear to help, too – they’ve all got one. Maybe that’s why Mathew Jonson didn’t get a look in?
05. DJ Koze
A year ago or more, I said the following about Koze: “Just when you think he’s going to pull a rabbit out of a hat, he shoots one out of a cannon.” I stand by it (the statement, not the cannon. If the RSPCA calls, I had nothing to do with it). Koze’s tracks have more ideas, more invention, and more pitched-up vocal samples than anyone else since the Avalanches. And when he’s on it, he’s one of the best DJs there is. Whether it was his remix of Dear’s ‘Elementary Lover’ or Battles’ ‘Atlas’, or two of the year’s best EPs (‘All the Time’, and ‘Naked’ [with Sid LeRock), Koze’s output was relatively modest, but he totally owned everything he touched – like his band International Pony sang: “it’s like SOLID GOLD!”. Speaking of which, I know that it was technically a 2006 release, but for me, International Pony’s Mit Mir Sind Wir Vier was one of 2007’s real treats. Cosily done. Contextually too (paralleling Dear’s relationship to M_nus), Koze was one of the only people who’ve had a longstanding creative association with the Kompakt mafia who really ruled the school this year, with the notable exception of Thomas Fehlman, who put out the extraordinarily under-rated Honigpumpe. I can’t talk about this too much more without going on a rant, so I’ll leave it there...but suffice to say, when Koze makes jokey music, it’s actually funny.
04. Matthew Dear
Poly/rhythmic/plasticity. This was the phrase that ended up in my notebook when trying to nail Dear’s style to the wall. Dear’s is a plastic passion, one that bends and moulds itself into three evolving musical styles, each of which appeared to hit its stride in 2007, which was also the title of Dear’s psychodramatic tour through the deep, dark techno of the wee smalls. There was a lot on 2007 to remind one of the blurred horrorsmear of a Francis Bacon portrait: it’s late, and all the kids in the club are growing claws. Then one hisses, you take fright, and scurry home from the club alone. And this is when 2007’s vampires (with ‘False’ teeth, natch) ambush you. It’s not just that Dear can pull off a moodpiece as totally engrossing and immersive as 2007, it’s also that, in the same year, he can release Asa Breed, an adventurous, interesting synth-pop album that showcases his growing songwriting talents. You wonder where he finds the time to destroy floors with his innumerable Audion remixes. The day that Dear discovered the Audion raygun was fateful: it continues to stun whatever it hits, even a year after ‘Mouth to Mouth’. Tracks like the remix of Blackstrobe’s ‘I’m a Man’ or ‘Fed on Youth’ (as False, but sounding Audion-ish) have a colossal feel to them. They hit in tsunami size waves, each larger and longer than the other. More than anything else, it’s this overwhelming feeling of mass and force that gives Dear’s tracks that techno avalanche touch. And it’s one kind of crushing I enjoy withstanding every time it hits me.
It’s also no coincidence that Dear is the sole representative of the M_nus camp to chart on RA’s producer rankings this year: he’s the only one who’s producing music that appeals to anyone not smitten by the cult of plip-plop or jammed into a k-hole in the corner of Bar 25. To me, the reason for this is that he’s emphatically not inflexibly tied to one style. Like I said, he’s poly, he’s rhythmic, he’s plastic. And he can sing. Kind of.
03. Radio Slave
The rising star of synth pop in Australia is called ‘Muscles’. The name works beautifully because of the wüssy, wet melodies, the sunny hooks and the fact that Muscles is a weedy little white guy. But Matthew Edwards deserves the moniker more. Radio Slave is a music of musculature, of power, directness and impact. This is techno with the ability to wiggle its pecs, and they’re big, buffed and oiled. Gosh, it’s like Berghain on a Saturday night, and this is precisely where such tracks are most at home. It’s the big room boom boom, and that’s the way we like it. More than any other artist on this list, Edwards burst prominently onto the scene (or even out of his t-shirt, Hulk-style) no more than three years ago with a deluge of high-impact, peaktime floorbombs, defty navigating the fine lines between the sampladelic idiocy of mash up, the buzz and squelch of electro house, and big, sweaty sausages-worth of peaktime minimal techno. What do you bench? Not as much as the Radio Slave remix, I’ll bet. But it’s the subtle ‘sensitive’ side of Edwards’ musical output that best shows his flexibility (this guy does yoga as well as pump iron), especially his work with Joel Martin as Quiet Village, definitely a slowburn late-night favourite. More artisan than artist, Edwards’ work pays attention to all the parts of a track that ‘matter’, that make it earn its chart position kick by snare. Behind all that, though, there are the ears of an emerging master. You get the feeling that not only will Edwards’ Radio Slave tracks be ruling the big floors for the next while, but that, having mastered doing things ‘by the rules’, he’s going to start playing between them.
02. Ricardo Villalobos
I remember seeing Ricardo for the first time as the warm-up DJ for Isolée at a gig in the front room of Melbourne’s Revolver in 2001. All I knew about him was that he was ‘Perlon’s DJ’, and that he’d done some nice tracks that appeared on the first Superlongevity compilation. There was something incredibly peaceful and sure about him on stage. He looked like some Andean Jesus (with the facial hair of the saviour and the long, pretty eyelashes of an alpaca) with that extended torso, the beatific smile…. The next time I saw him play was in Tokyo, just before Alachofa made him the pinup boy of artschool/bedroom ‘auteur techno’, and he looked exactly as he had done in Melbourne. In fact, all Ricardo Villalobos has ever done is be himself, at least as far as I can see. He’s not into developing personas (although he collaborates under pseudonyms) or pawning a gadget-cluttered future led by wankers who think their accumulation of frequent flyer miles is a sign of human progress. With his alienated, bemused relation to the hype machine, his suspicion of the Internet, and the starry-eyed idealism that comes across in his interviews, he is hardly the person most likely to be the bearer of so much hype. Thing is, Villalobos is overhyped, but not over-rated. When you hear tracks like his remix of ‘Cellphone’s Dead’ or any of the work on ‘Sei es Drum’, the Fabric compilation or last December’s outstanding ‘What’s Wrong My Friends’ double EP, you know you’re in the presence of a unique talent with a skewed worldview and a gentle, twisted sense of humour. His tracks have magical effects on dancefloors, and they’re wonderful to mix. Most of all, it’s those drums, those wonderful drums. All I ask of techno is that it be rhythmically interesting, and nobody fulfils this criterion better than Villalobos – and with more sticks and skins than the rest of ‘em put together.
There’s something fleeting, precise and crystalline in Philip Sollmann’s productions. There are the fading ghosts of purestruck metallic resonance throughout all the sounds he choses, which ring like triangles, gongs, chimes struck unhanded by some thing unseen in the empty rehearsal room of an old concert hall. Or maybe that’s my over-active imagination. Ryuichi Sakamoto, explaining how he deliberately put lots of intervals and gaps between the notes on his now-classic Vriion and Insen collaborations with Carsten Nicolai, put it like this: “I hit one note,” he said, “then just let it go, let it ring, then after the silence I hit the second note.” Like Sakamoto’s piano, Sollmann’s tracks ‘ring’, and they ring true. You’d have to say it was the Efdemin album that really clinched it for Sollmann this year: a beautiful work with limitless replayability (my iTunes playcount tells the story), toned in chrome metal, sombre green and deep blue. A lot of people would have to give the nod to ‘Just a Track’, with its dry drums and preachapella, or ‘Acid Bells’ with its unnerving squall of chimes, but ‘Stately, Yes’ is the track I would offer as the best example of the abundant qualities just described. In this track, Sollmann sublimates the shuttersnap dryness of his art-school training to a highly emotive understanding of deep house, and it’s a deserving winner. And all this from an artist who was only an (admittedly beautifully crafted) blip on the radar little more than a year ago, before the release of ‘Bergwein’. Perhaps that says something about just how accomplished his productions really are.
So there you have it. But with so much good music and so many talented people not on this list, it'd pay to remember that this is limited ink (or pixels). I need only think of people like Mark August, Carsten Jost, Mathew Jonson, Len Faki, Bruno Pronsato, Jacek Sienkiewicz, Rod Modell, Mikael Stavostrand, Redshape, Move D and Michael Baumann (to name but a handful) who released their share of marvellous records this year. Come to think of it, Baumann should make the list purely because of the double letters in his surname, but hey. My list of ‘also rans’ is no doubt biased toward my tastes – I’m sure you can think of several people whose work totally owned you in ‘07 that didn’t make the cut. What this shows is that, despite the overwhelming number of screamingly average EPs released ad nauseum, there were still several hundred fascinating, wonderful recordings released this year within the very narrow purview of our interests.
Oh, and one last salient feature of the year has been the phenomenal number of female players now well and truly in the game. I’m going to forget heaps of people, but these are the names that immediately spring to mind: Ada, Ellen Allien, Magda, Jennifer Cardini, Anja Schneider, Shinedoe, MIA, Margaret Dygas, Cassy, Dinky, Estroe, Akikyo Kiyama, Kate Simko, Ana and Julietta, Miskate, Chloe, Cio D'or – and there’s more. Just don’t let’s talk about any of this patronising ‘DJane’ rubbish – yuck. All of these artists added their unique contribution to what is (despite the probable death of ‘hardware’ formats, the closure of a number of excellent record stores, the bankruptcy of vinyl pressing and distributing organisations and the fact that a lot of people aren’t getting paid for the recordings they make), a vital, fascinating, living musical form. I’ll jack to that.
Who are your top producers of 2007?
Have your say in the RA forums
Voters: Jeremy Armitage, David Berkley, Philipp Cerfontaine, Peter Chambers, Richard Chinn, Paul Clement, Angus Dawson, Tami Fenwick, Ronan Fitzgerald, Stéphane Girard, Mohson Iqbal, Janet Leyton-Grant, Alex Macpherson, Chris Mann, Joshua Meggitt, Steve Mizek, Siana Petro, James Poletti, Carl Ritger, Colin Shields, Björn Schaeffner, Lee Smith, Christopher Thomarios, Nik Torrens, Enrique Vanegas, Rick Warner, Jacob Wright, Sean-Michael Yoder and Robbie Younan.