The 2016 polls come to a close with the RA staff's tracks of the year.
Another Dark Age
"Benzedrine" came from a previously unknown Australian artist on a label with no relation to dance music. Yet the insane precision of Tackle's rhythm programming recalled techstep's glory days without an iota of nostalgia, placing its dystopian moods in a rusted landscape twisted by heat. It has the looming menace of Tyson stalking the ring, but beneath the intimidating facade is a tragic humour steeped in Australian binge-drinking psychosis.
- DJ Slyngshot
Ain't Got No Time
Place No Blame
Like Todd Terry or Andrés, DJ Slyngshot makes house music with hip-hop attitude. He struck gold with "Ain't Got No Time," getting the Place No Blame label off to a promising start. There isn't much to tracks like this—load some samples into the Akai MPC2000, vibe out for a few hours and call it a day. Slyngshot, however, does it better than most, and his sound—raw piano house with a "golden era" feel—won't ever go out of style.
"My next album is going to have a lot of people, Amp Fiddler, whoever want to work with me. Fuck it, that's the way it's got to go." Seven years later, Alex O. Smith made good on his promise. On The Best, he works with Motor City veterans like Amp and Norm Talley on some of the album’s strongest tracks. He also gives a serious cosign to newcomer John FM. The young Detroit artist comes through with a memorable put-down to close the album, matching Smith at his tough, emotive finest.
- Harvey Sutherland And Bermuda
Does Harvey Sutherland experience sadness? Surely anyone churning out impossibly cheery tracks like "Priestess," a collaboration with drummer Graeme Pogson and electric strings player Tamil Rogeon, never feels blue. And, thanks to its crafty live instrumentation and sunny melodies that evoke a Melbourne beach in summer, whenever it gets played you probably won't either. In a year in which house music was stacked with weepy chords, "Priestess" brought us joy.
- Andy Stott
A pop sensibility has emerged over the course of Andy Stott's career, and this year it fully came into its own. The Manchester artist isn't about to produce a Rihanna record, but Too Many Voices made the idea at least seem plausible. "New Romantic" was exemplary of this growth, with Stott sculpting his blackened techno into a dream-pop diamond with glowing edges. From the crystalline synth hooks and Alison Skidmore's angelic whispers to the low-slung bass growl and blown-out beats, "New Romantic" is infectious electronic music.
- Justin Cudmore
Crystal (Mike Servito's 730 Reshape)
Mike Servito is a rare DJ who gets booked all over the world but has never released so much as a 12-inch. This year, however, Honey Soundsystem finally put his name on wax. For his remix of Justin Cudmore's debut single, "Crystal," Servito chewed the track down to the bone, shaping it into a lean, mean acid machine that gets people running to the dance floor. In only seven minutes, it captures all the attitude and charm of his DJ sets.
If you danced at a boat party or outdoor festival this summer, it's likely you heard "Final Credits" by Midland. The UK producer took a sample from a 1980 funk tune—"Rockin - Poppin Full Tilting" by Lee Alfred—and used it to craft 2016's finest disco-house stomper. A tightly woven loop and a catchy synth pave the way for a rousing vocal to creep in and provide a magical moment right at the very end.
- Mark Seven
The Fatal Flaw In Disco
Beautiful Swimmers' Ari Goldman looked to Stockholm-based Brit Mark Seven for the first release on his new label, World Building, and the results couldn't have been more satisfying. Inspired by classicists like Mike Dunn, "Fast" Eddie Smith and Roy Davis Jr., the "U-4-Ria" mix of "The Fatal Flaw In Disco" was a sample-heavy house tune with peak-time banger written all over it. Unsurprisingly, it's been lighting up dance floors since dropping in August.
- Project Pablo
Sounds Of Beaubien Ouest
When Patrick Holland moved to Montréal from Vancouver, he wrote a track called "Movin' Out" that was still in thrall to the sound of the "Canadian Riviera." "Closer," with its quirky keyboard lead and beat that ambles like an old cartoon character, shows the influence of Montréal's relaxed lifestyle, its verdant parks, lively patios and centuries-old avenues. It's the sound of a young artist finding himself in a new environment.
A music critic once described indie-rock vocals as "the sound of a man addressing the world from his sleeping bag." On Babyfather's first single, Dean Blunt is the hip-hop equivalent. "Can they give a nigga privacy?"; "Get these white girls out of my home,"; "Pour some liquor... on my head." With a thumping rhythm coproduced by Arca, "Meditation" is Blunt's biggest track yet, but these listless rhymes keep it safely within his own strange universe.
Tell You No Lie
"Someone has been paying attention to what the kids are up to," wrote one Discogs commenter in reference to the sample on Floorplan's "Tell You No Lie." Though Robert Hood has flirted with disco in the past, it's true that there's something current, almost trendy, about his latest hit, from the tunnelling groove to the wailing diva vocal. But unlike so many tracks in this style, "Tell You No Lie" will never grow old. Timeless music never does.
- DJ Sotofett
Current 82 (12 Mix)
Keys Of Life
The dance floor felt like an increasingly politicised space this year, but, through old-school rave escapism, DJ Sotofett's "Current 82" hearkened back to simpler times. In the midst of a busy year for the Sex Tags boss (he appeared on at least 16 records), the 13-minute track was an obvious highlight. It's not far from his usual remit—full of hand percussion and dub-treated samples—but its gentle pads add clarity, like the sunrise at the end of a blurry night out.
Astral Plane Recordings
Something special happened in experimental club music this year. Labels and producers were thinking beyond genre confines, with Astral Plane Recordings among those leading the charge. If you're unacquainted with the label, LOFT's seven-minute tour de force, "Heffalump," is a great place to start. At only 23 years old, the Leeds producer has shown himself to be a remarkably sophisticated artist, pairing rhythmic gymnastics with out-of-this-world sound design. The result is both disorienting and strangely danceable.
2 The Sky (Metatron's What If There's No End And No Beginning Mix)
There's often a sense of divine ecstasy in the music made by the artist known as Traumprinz and DJ Metatron. His rave elegies may seem tenderly downcast at their heart, but with gospel singing and soft-glowing melodies, their eyes are always trained on the heavens. Never was this more apparent than on "2 The Sky (Metatron's What If There's No End And No Beginning Mix)."
- Mr. Fingers
Mr. Fingers 2016 was easily among the best house releases of the year, with four rich, understated tracks that spoke to the many incomparable talents of Larry Heard. But, in its cosmic contemplations and delicate energy, "Qwazars" seemed to encapsulate them all. Armed with a few choice words from the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Heard inspired existential and introspective bliss alike, amplified by the burbling synth and quiet drum machine.
True Panther Sounds
Atlanta singer and producer Abra says that she made her Princess EP in her bedroom closet. You can hear that kind of intimacy in "Crybaby," a freestyle-inspired highlight that puts a darkly captivating spin on '80s dance music. Both expansive and private, it's proof of the unique power Abra has as a one-woman band—a power that could barely be contained by a record, let alone a closet. "Crybaby" shows why she'll be moving onto bigger spaces next year.
You know it's a good record if you can't pick a favourite track. While that's basically the case with Workshop 23, something about the A2—the breathy vocals, the spacey arrangement, the trip-hop lilt of the rhythm—made it the winner by a hair. With last year's "Feel Me" (her debut production), Willow set high expectations for her first full EP. About 30 seconds into "A2," she'd surpassed them.
- Avalon Emerson
Even without the title or the cacti on the cover, "The Frontier" might still make you imagine the deserts that inspired it, perhaps whipping by at high speed through a car's windshield. With rumbling drums and synths like vapour trails in a blue sky, it's a brilliant club weapon but also something more delicate: a reflection on a place that's no longer home. Proof that, like most art, even club bangers work best when the artist bares their soul.
- Pearson Sound
On the Saturday night at this year's Freerotation Festival in Wales, a group of ravers gathered around David Kennedy, AKA Pearson Sound, nudging him in the ribs and smiling. Kowton had just dropped "XLB," and the track's trippy, raindrop synths were swirling around the room like a whirlpool. As the drop inched tantalisingly closer, a ripple spread through the crowd—"Look, there's David!"—until everyone in the room had one eye on him. When the kick finally crashed in, the roar was deafening. Whether Kennedy was present or not, "XLB" brought dance floors together like few other tracks in 2016.
2 Bad (DJ Metatron's What If Madness Is Our Only Relief Mix)
In writing about our track of the year, it's never felt necessary to place the piece of music in a context much beyond the dance floors and headphones it was heard on. But in 2016, things feel different. At the end of a year characterised by uncertainty, with almost everyone seeming utterly exhausted by global events, tracks like "2 Bad" take on extra significance. We've long looked to the artist known as Prince Of Denmark, Traumprinz and DJ Metatron for a certain type of cathartic bliss, but at this moment in time, the expressions he's communicating have never felt more needed.
It's also significant that 2 The Sky, the EP "2 Bad" is taken from, seems to explore themes of religion and faith. A pair of crosses sit at the centre of its hand-drawn cover art. Its track titles—"Healing & Unity," "The Journey"—evoke gospel music. In Judaism, Metatron is a high-ranking archangel also known as the Recording Angel. It's unlikely we'll ever know the exact meaning behind this message: the artist himself is, of course, one of dance music's great mysteries, a man with barely any presence in the media, who rarely performs live. But across his vast quantities of music, released and unreleased, this intersection of rave and religion, with their shared values of ritual and community, strikes a particularly resonant chord.
The appeal is also explained by "2 Bad"'s simplicity, an incredibly potent blend of breakbeats, synthesised strings and a repeated vocal lament: "It's too bad / Too bad, baby." Metatron's subtle genius is exposed in the details. Around the midpoint, he gently filters the beat, allowing the mood to drift, before forcefully reintroducing the kick. An additional string section adds complexity to the emotional tone. And the final two minutes are a wash of beatless ambience, as if the night, or perhaps the world itself, is being brought to a quiet end.
This poll is decided by the votes of RA staff members and current contributors.
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The year in review
2010-19: Mixes Of The Decade
20 mixes that defined the past decade.
2010-19: Reissues Of The Decade
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2010-19: Tracks Of The Decade
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2010-19: Reflections Of A Black Woman In Dance Music
Ash Lauryn on women in dance music, then and now.
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RA staff look back on the definitive albums of the 2010s.