It would be an exaggeration to say that the winds of change blew through our 2015 DJ poll, but there was at least a refreshing breeze. We've been talking a lot at RA about the recent rise of "local heroes," whereby the dance music community has focussed on discovering and elevating DJs who've been flying under the global radar. Consider these newcomers to the top 100: Mike Servito, Enzo Siragusa, Helena Hauff, Jeremy Underground, Sonja Moonear, Black Coffee, The Black Madonna and Hunee. They've all been gigging for a good number of years. Some of them make music, some don't, but they're all known as DJs first and foremost. They all have loyal localized fan bases, and they all have enough experience to take a rise in profile in their stride.
None of these DJs made the top 20, but there was a subtle suggestion that things were different in that part of town. Only two years ago, a certain type of artist dominated the top of the list, a sort of "post-superstar DJ" who ruled places like Ibiza with enormous weekly residencies. I'm not about to denigrate DJs who are obviously extremely talented and successful; it's just that there were a lot of them. The top 20 in 2015, on the other hand, felt more balanced, with room for DJs—Four Tet to Laurent Garnier, Bicep to Motor City Drum Ensemble and Ben UFO—who represent a range of styles and milieus. I realise I haven't said "2016" once at this point, but these trends have been building slowly, and it would be great to see them develop further in the year ahead.
I recently talked about all the ground that's been broken in global club music, a topic for which I expressed plenty of optimism but also some reservations. In periods of frenzied exploration, sonic expansion is obviously crucial, but in 2016 I'd also like to see some contraction. Crews and labels like Janus, NAAFI, Fade To Mind, Gang Fatale, The Astral Plane, #KUNQ and countless others are generating an incredible volume of ideas through their music and DJ sets, but I worry that with such an emphasis on innovation, we might overlook seeds that could flourish into whole new genres. If, say, certain rhythm patterns were allowed to breath and germinate, perhaps music with deeper roots would take hold. Or maybe that's an outdated view. Maybe the whole spirit is a sort of Snapchat for clubs, with a sound or idea existing for a short time before it's replaced with something new. I look forward to wrestling with this more in 2016.
The new Junior Boys, Kyle Hall, Roly Porter, Bill Converse and Secret Boyfriend albums should make it a strong start to the year, and I'm excited to hear the upcoming full-lengths from Andrew Weatherall, Chromatics, Radiohead, Kelela, Omar-S and Matmos. And on my "I-really-hope-they-release-an-album-this-year" list is Jessy Lanza, Powell, Forest Swords, DJ Koze, Shackleton and Dean Blunt.
Last January, I hoped that minimal (whatever that means these days) would have a big year. It did. I'm not a big fan of lists (and, I assume, neither are the people I'm going to mention here), but to see Raresh at #22 in our top DJs feature was fantastic. It reaffirms that there's a huge appetite for subtle sounds, despite all the recent attention on various kinds of more in-your-face dance music.
It now feels like a huge undercurrent of talented DJs and producers are getting attention from the wider house and techno community—the positive response to last year's Nicolas Lutz podcast is just one example of this. Many of them are Romanians who have broken from the monochrome version of the so-called Romanian sound that many DJs were pushing in the wake of [a:rpia:r]'s international breakout around eight years ago. The likes of Barac, Melodie, Suciu, VincentIulian, Dan Andrei, Cristi Cons and Vlad Caia are some of the producers forging new ground, but you can likely expect more to emerge in 2016. All of these artists have been making high-quality music for years, so when their experience is paired with this desire to do something different the results are often impressive.
It's impossible to discuss the state of minimal without mentioning Berlin. As it happens, you can't really call most of what's going on here minimal. Some of today's key figures associated with the tag used to play it—it's more useful as a grouping term than a descriptor. This is especially true of Slow Life, a Spanish and Italian collective with big potential. The six-person crew includes three hugely respected DJs (Laurine, DJ Tree, Cecilio) and producer S. Moreira (those unfamiliar with his work should check the excellent "Late Dawn"). They have a double-vinyl compilation called Chromophore on the way, which you can probably count on being one of this year's highlights.
The Slow Life collective is representative of an increasingly common type of act: DJs and producers who have spent years obsessively digging for forgotten dance floor records, and who are now emerging with a different set of values from many other recent breakthrough artists. Citing L.I.E.S. and Future Times this time last year, Will Lynch celebrated the work of artists releasing music "rarely inspired by the rave experience." A new wave of producers and DJs, which includes Slow Life, Binh, Nicolas Lutz, Andrew James Gustav and Francesco Del Garda, come with a different approach. They live and breathe vinyl, mix records with their friends at home, hunt for track IDs and go to parties. Outsider house reigned supreme in 2012 and 2013. With a bit of luck, 2016 might be the year of insider house.
This year is shaping up to be a crucial one for UK nightlife in the wake of a turbulent 2015. For all of last year's negatives, and there were almost too many to count—Glasgow's The Arches entering administration, the demise of small venues around the country, the delayed night tube in London—there were some positives: the formation of the NTIA, fabric's legal win over Islington Council and South London's Bussey Building standing tall against the threat of property development. But even these high points felt like silver linings around dark clouds. fabric's court battle took a year of planning and was no doubt incredibly expensive. The Bussey Building situation was alarming because it felt like the venue barely had time to establish itself as a cultural hub before the threat of redevelopment loomed. I hope things brighten up this year. There are lessons to be learned from Amsterdam, where venues like Radion and the newly opened De School, which also has a restaurant, a café and installation space, are given 24-hour licenses and room to thrive.
Digging for records at a rarefied level has always been a competitive pursuit. In 2015, that nerdy competition fuelled reissue culture and took it to new heights. There is now a very healthy pool of labels working incredibly hard to dust off and polish all manner of weird, overlooked and brilliant music from across the globe. With each passing year the bar in this field gets raised a little—as my colleagues pointed out in the recent Critics Roundtable, the past five years could all have rightly been considered "the year of the reissue." 2015's archival releases came from artists or bands who were perhaps too strange for their time—Mariah, Patrick Cowley, Vito Ricci—but sound great today.
Record labels like Dark Entries, Music From Memory and Palto Flats (and many others) help expand our musical universe with their vinyl archaeology. But it's worth noting that those outlets also release new music. And in that spirit, in 2016 I'd like to see more of the fresh, intergenerational collaborations that reissue culture can foster—stuff like the Gaussian Curve project featuring Gigi Masin, Young Marco and Jonny Nash.
In 2016 I'll have my fingers crossed for some new music from Jon Hassell. I'm looking forward to albums from Omar-S and Max D, more records from Japanese producer Powder, the Dip In The Pool 12-inch on Music From Memory and anything on Lovefingers' ESP Institute and Vladimir Ivkovic's Offen Music. I'd also recommend dipping into the excellent Lullabies For Insomniacs mix series this year whenever you're in the mood to chill.
I never really considered myself a female writer, only a writer. Early last year the female critic debate was given a fresh poke when Pitchfork Review's former editor-in-chief, Jessica Hopper, published The First Collection Of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic, an anthology of her work spanning two decades of music journalism. It provoked a series of internet think pieces and rebuttals on the subject. It was by no means the only feminist dialogue in 2015, but it was a major one. I paid little attention to it at the time, until I was tentatively called upon for my services—as a woman. Reluctantly I was drawn into a discussion that had never crossed my mind before. Now here I am voicing an opinion on the subject—something I could never have foreseen (for myself) in 2016.
For me, gender has little to do with it; as a critic I'll be picking up an artist on her or his merit first. As an artist, writer or whatever else in the music industry, it's the same passion that drives us all. I believe that dwelling on the "why aren't there more females in music?" angle isn't the right way to approach gender issues in music in 2016. It's time to start having a more positive outlook; to celebrate the females already out there, and to work harder on finding and championing those who are less visible. In that sense, I hope to see more events like Salt + Sass in Berlin emerging as a meet and greet—for all genders—aimed at spotlighting women working in the industry, and to provide a platform for those who are trying to break into it.
On the music front I found myself rekindling old flames in 2015. I returned to Bangface for the first time in seven years, and Planet Mu became my favourite label again. It was a year of anniversaries: DMZ and Tectonic turned ten, Planet Mu doubled that, and Tempa and Bangface hit the 100 mark in releases and events respectively. They've all formed an important part of my personal development, and I can only admire them for their ability to weather fads and trends. I believe they've done this by simultaneously celebrating the past while keeping an eye on the present and future; there's room for new talents to forge ahead while other acts foster something more purist. It's a symbiotic relationship that I hope will deepen and become more fruitful in the year to come.
Finally, I hope more breakaway acts like Visionist, Herva, Lotic and Rabit, who have decided to cast off completely on their own, will further emerge in 2016 to explore strange and alien lands, regardless of whether we're going to get it or not. We need risk-takers, we need people who care about what they do and not what other people think. For me, these artists made some of the best (if not immediately likable) albums of 2015. And I'm looking forward to being challenged once again.
Dance music in the '00s has felt like a steadily inflating bubble. Spiralling DJ fees, a booming festival circuit and torrents of corporate money have created the impression of infinite growth. And that's just in Europe; the US's EDM explosion has opened up a vast new frontier for electronic music. I'm not complaining. The effect has been an intensification of activity at all levels, from the big leagues down to the most obscure bedroom tinkerers. But I do worry that, one year soon, 18-year-olds will rediscover The Beatles and the whole thing will come crashing down. Hopefully 2016 won't be that year.
My most profound musical experiences last year came through institutions with an ambivalent relationship to these boom times. The festivals Freerotation and Unsound, and the club Berghain, all get a large part of their magic from their sense of intimacy and shared experience. All three have fought to keep this in the face of mushrooming demand. Full festival tickets for Unsound Kraków sold out in minutes last year, Freerotation uses an arcane membership system and the Berghain door remains the bleakest place in Berlin. A tension between inclusiveness and its opposite has held dance music together since the members-only spots of '70s New York. That tension will become more pronounced in the coming year, and the questions it throws up—who's "in" and who's "out"? At what point does community spirit become elitism?—will only become more urgent.
In 2015, the rallying around clubs and venues as essential cultural spaces led us back to the grassroots, all-together-now spirit of early dance music. Now, this year, it looks like we're returning to the queer energy that helped to create our scene in the first place. In America, this might be the year when queer people—and queer parties—take back the spotlight. Veteran DJs who are just starting to get their dues, like Mike Servito and Carlos Souffront, have been staples of their local queer scenes for years. The Honey Soundsystem crew in San Francisco are another leading light, and their profile is only rising thanks to residencies at clubs like Smart Bar. Honey's Josh Cheon is responsible for Dark Entries, an increasingly popular label that digs into the past, sometimes shedding light on the deepest, darkest corners of gay culture. Their collections of Patrick Cowley's porn soundtracks, for example, have captured minds both straight and queer. Honey and Dark Entries are reminders of just how deeply rooted electronic music is in gay culture.
There's increasing recognition of that, as shown by the way the dance music community has reacted to homophobic outbursts. And I don't think people are going to be any less passionate this year about standing up for what they believe in. When I first became involved in the scene, I was surprised—and dismayed—at how straight everything, and everyone, seemed to be, especially at the higher echelons, and especially in North America. It doesn't feel like that anymore. With prominent queer DJs and parties around the world—parties like Cocktail D'Amore, Men's Room, Dickslap, Honcho, Wrecked and Spotlight—keeping the flame burning, dance music is only going to get more gay in 2016.
The global melting pot of new club styles has given rise to a certain kind of DJ, with Total Freedom, Rizzla and Juliana Huxtable being notable examples. They play with a fearless, uncompromising and often deliberately challenging approach that gets a reaction out of people one way or the other. Artists like Arca, Elysia Crampton and Rabit take a similar approach to production, encoding ideas from all sorts of genres into their own beguiling music. What do these artists have in common? They're queer, and they're outspoken about it. What I'm most excited by in 2016 is that electronic music seems to increasingly be becoming a place for social dialogues. With artists who are unafraid to get real and put themselves out there, the scene could be a vital platform for self-expression and wider cultural change.
The vast majority of my top dance music experiences last year came when the tempo breached 140 BPM. For those experiencing house and techno fatigue, the possibilities of higher tempos are something of an antidote to consistency; suddenly electro, jungle, drum & bass, digi-dancehall, dubstep, IDM and much else besides become fair game in the mix. Sometimes it seems difficult to hear this sort of mélange with any regularity in Berlin, where middling tempos reign supreme, but I hope to discover the nooks and crannies where DJs are taking chances and looking to surprise rather than hypnotize.
For me, it's a pleasure hearing new music from DJ Stingray, who continues to inspire, particularly with his recent EP on Lower Parts. I also hope that Hidden Hawaii have more releases in the pipeline. Their fusing of technoid atmospheres with drum & bass tempos also attracts me to the work of Ena and other Samurai Music artists, while the run of 7-inches appearing on the 45Seven label, a sub-label of German high-tempo outpost Alphacut, have fused classic dub samples, pin-point production and the awesome compression that only a 7-inch can provide. Speaking of 7-inches, I hope Japanese reissue label Dub Store continue providing us with their seemingly endless supply of digi-killers, particularly of the crunchy Jammy's variety. And if it's not too much to ask for, new music from Torsten Pröfrock (AKA T++) would be more than welcome.
I recently took the reigns from Jordan Rothlein as RA's tech editor. As a music fan, the tech world can be equal parts intriguing and baffling. It's a bubble where DIY passion overlaps with transnational companies. It's also a domain where the way in which products are marketed often contradicts what we know about music history and culture. Most of the key shifts in music production in the 20th century came from individuals pushing machines beyond the manufacturer's intentions; think of how distortion shaped early rock & roll, the effect of the TB-303 on dance music, how turntablism laid the blueprint for hip-hop or how Jamaican producers spawned the dub virus by running their signals into the red. Yet as a budding producer in 2016, well-meaning websites and manufacturers often have you dutifully colouring inside the lines. When a regime of best practice becomes standardised through an online accumulation of tips and techniques, the margin for error that seems to incubate musical development becomes wider, and theoretically the music becomes more consistent. As we consider the glut of middle-of-the-road dance music set for release in 2016, I hope that we can shine a light on those who don't take tradition as given and push their machines to nefarious ends.
As Ryan mentioned above, it was great to see previously unsung US veterans like Carlos Souffront, The Black Madonna, Mike Servito and also Solar achieve frequent-flyer status in 2015. These jocks held it down in their respective cities for decades before hitting the world stage, and perhaps their success will pave the way for another round of seasoned local heroes. Texas DJ/producer Bill Converse, the rest of the No Way Back crew and Jason Kendig come to mind as DJ's DJs who will get more shine in 2016, and it's no coincidence they all cut their teeth in the Motor City. Speaking of Detroit, it was wonderful to hear Kyle Hall close out 2015 with a massive second album, From Joy. I'm also looking forward to 2016 full-lengths from Omar-S, Andrés and Marcellus Pittman.
2015 was the year of the digger DJ, underlined by the announcement of September's 1500-capacity Dekmantel Selectors festival. I always learn lots listening to mixes from Organic Music's Chee Shimizu, Manchester DJ Jon K and Amsterdam's Orpheu The Wizard. Orpheu rubs shoulders with the crew behind Music From Memory, the excellent reissue label that's taken an oddball pop turn heading into 2016—if they continue to dig up amazing obscurities from the likes of Michal Turtle and Dip In The Pool, I will continue to give them my money. I'm also continually impressed with Cómeme as an example of how a label can function in this day and age. Beyond pressing up records, they act as an online radio station and touring platform, and I can't wait for more material, be it vinyl or freeform radio shows, from label affiliates Lena Willikens, Borusiade and Inga Mauer.
Bringing it all back home (well, to my home in the US at least), Max D was on a mission with Future Times in 2015. I'm looking forward to his upcoming full-length, Boost, and whatever else is on the way. Heading north but remaining on the aqueous, gently psychedelic house tip, Vancouver dudes Mood Hut still can't miss. Hopefully they release more than three records this year. FIT Sound and hyperactive SF label Dark Entries will remain buy-on-sights for me, same goes for UK labels DDS (Demdike Stare Records), Sacred Summits and PLO Man's Acting Press. All told, there are a lot of incredible little labels, DJs and clubs that have managed to get a foothold recently, leaving me the daunting, exciting task of sussing out the good stuff.
In terms of social issues, 2015 felt like a year of soul-searching for dance music—or growing pains, depending on how you look at it. Now-famous expressions of homophobia and a stubborn gender imbalance (on lineups as well as year-end polls) reminded us of how far we have to go, but in grappling with these and other problems, we inched, however sluggishly, toward the "shared set of values" Angus Finlayson mentioned in his opinion piece. I hope this year dance music continues to reaffirm itself as a liberal and inclusive culture. And while this may be too much to ask, it would be great if that process involved a bit less carnage—fewer career meltdowns, less online abuse, a reduced social media gossip cycle. Generally speaking, I would love for social media snafus to be a far more minor topic in electronic music this year.
On the clubbing front, living in Berlin, I'd like to see a new club or party come out of left-field, particularly something with good residents where you can turn up without knowing who's on. I loved this aspect of going out when I moved here, and it feels less common now than it once was. I'd also like to see OHM, a tiny one-room spot in the same building as Tresor, continue to hit its stride. In the past couple of years it's become a cozy refuge for more niched strands of club music (bass, experimental etc.) and I've had some really memorable nights there lately. Looking further afield, I'm excited to learn more about emerging scenes in Belgrade and Tbilisi, and hopefully get familiar with their clubs and artists.
Of course there's a lot of music I'm looking forward to as well. SUED, Workshop, Aniara and Giegling are all buy-on-sight labels for me at the moment, so I'll gobble up whatever they dish out. I'm also excited to sift through this year's inevitable deluge of records from the extended Sex Tags family. If the new Omar-S album is as good as Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself, I'll be happy. It's a near certainty that I will greatly enjoy whatever Leif puts out. And then of course there's all the killer music I'll encounter this year that I currently know nothing about—as always, that's the most exciting bit.