RA staff pick their favourite tracks from the last 12 months.
Let us know what you think in the comments below, and feel free to share your personal highlights from 2018.
You can listen to a playlist of tracks on Apple Music and YouTube.
Eris Drew's production debut is as uplifting as her DJ sets. Using a vintage Bob James break, "Hold Me (T4T Embrace Mix)" builds towards a climax, first with its gasping vocal sample, then a synth harpsichord. But instead of tipping over, it stays poised. Like the best raves, it seems to go on and on.
You'd think it would be too much: thumping kicks, gated snares, an Italo bassline, numerous breakdowns, even the odd bit of electric guitar, and all at 135 BPM. But somehow, all the parts in Kasper Marrot's "Keflavik" work together beautifully, making this ecstatic rush of a track one of the year's best floor-fillers, and a clear breakthrough for the Danish producer.
Raime's take on weightless grime turns their hefty, bass-heavy sound on its head. A flurry of samples—strings, slivers of vocal, barely-there drums—duels with a mallet lead that appears and dissolves in almost random intervals. It's a dizzying four minutes that never sits still, from a duo once known for their hypnotically repetitive, dread-filled grooves.
How do you make techno that goes hard and fast without feeling suffocating? The Washington, D.C. duo Rush Plus know a thing or two about that. "Sweat" hovers around 140 BPM but never sounds like it, thanks to a swing that soaks up the impact like shock absorbers. Borrowing a trick from '90s classics and updating it for 2018, "Sweat" is face-melting techno that remembers how to be fun.
Debiasing might have been 2018's most powerful techno EP, and it didn't even have a kick drum. Barker's melodic masterpiece, his first solo release for Berghain's in-house label, drew from classic techno and trance, channeling the emotional heft of '90s dance music into something distinctly modern. "Look How Hard I've Tried" was its standout moment, a mess of tumbling chords that combine for five minutes of euphoria.
Since 2016, James Blake has inhabited the highest echelons of popular music, collaborating with the likes of Beyoncé, Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar. The gangly kid with an angelic voice who started out making weirdo dubstep is now a global star. But has this newfound fame sanitized his sound? Hell no. "If The Car Beside You Moves Ahead," one of two solo tracks released this year, was a strange and spellbinding ride through a world of neon synths and spliced vocals. More than anything, it was proof that great pop need not play by the rules.
Each of Leif's tracks is like a window into another world—a surreal and colorful place drawn out by his rich textures and oddball rhythms. Never was this more true than on "Number 13," a shimmering kaleidoscope of groove and melody that feels both deeply psychedelic and somehow wholesome, like a folk song from another dimension. With each new record, the Welsh producer outdoes himself. This one was no exception.
The '90s were a great time for UK dance music, especially in the cosmic zone where house and techno intersect. Flow supplied some of that era's most sought-after tech house tunes, many of which are still played by dance music's classiest DJs. This 11-minute wrecking ball was an unreleased tune from that era, given new life by Eli Verveine and Oscar Schubaq's Tardis label. It steamrolled dance floors all over the world in 2018.
If it was anyone's year, it was Peggy Gou's. The South Korean artist made mincemeat of the international club and festival scene, DJing around 150 gigs. This was made possible in part by her Ninja Tune debut, which immediately felt like a classic. The hand percussion, rubbery bassline and heavy-lidded vocal of "It Makes You Forget (Itgehane)" hit on a breezy, Sade-via-Larry Heard romanticism.
When Moor Mother and DJ Haram teamed for an EP this year, it was clearly the start of something big. Pairing Moor Mother's hardcore doom poetry with Haram's scarily tense instrumentals, Spa 700 gives shape to the anger and alienation of being poor and black in America. "Cosmic Slop," the highlight from that EP, is like getting grabbed and shaken by the shoulders, and that's not just because of the sub-bass.
"The most beauty is between melancholic and euphoric," DJ Koze tells us. "I think 'Pick Up' has some of both, a counterbalance of the sad voice and the disco loop, which could last forever. I like the simplicity, that there are so few elements. The brain has time and space to imagine and think on its own, which is something I loved about hip-hop. You find one loop, and if it's magical, you can hear it forever. But they're not easy to find. It's the only track I've made in one night—in three or four hours, with a bottle of red wine. So it's the song that took me the least work, but had the biggest impact."
When Gerd Janson dropped "Neutron Dance" at Sugar Mountain, a month before it came out, there were various, outsized reactions. Immediate whooping. Ear-to-ear grins. In-unison jumping. The track would continue to get these reactions all summer. The New York-via-Dublin producer's new wave house cut was a hit because it triggered multiple levels of nostalgia, riffing on both New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" and Todd Terje's arpeggiated ecstasy.
Here's what Marco Shuttle told Donato Dozzy after he dropped "Cleo" in a DJ set: "Donato, I don't think you quite realise what you have done. This stuff is just something else, it's beyond… the people are just melting when I play it!" Anyone who's heard "Cleo" in the past year will understand what he meant. Its wafting lead feels angelic and profound. Its 16th-note arps cast you into high tides of bliss. The deep techno scene to which Dozzy belongs rarely produces anthems, but in "Cleo," it certainly has.
"When a taxi would pass playing this song to the max volume, while we are in class.... errbody would sing stand up and dance." So said one YouTube user about DJ Call Me's "Marry Me," a kwaito hit reissued this year by the Scottish label Highlife, a decade after it took South Africa by storm. Sickly sweet and maddeningly catchy, its bubbly spirit drew smiles from dancers around the world.
Remember the days of UK bass anthems like "Footcrab" and "Swims"? When dancers used to jump up and scream when they recognized the familiar notes of an incoming track? Well, this bare-bones beat science bomb may bring that phenomenon back. It's instantly recognizable despite being almost entirely percussion, and it makes powerful but tasteful use of the drop, deadly effective in rooms big and small.
On "Work It," Marie Davidson is your motivational speaker. "Now, I don't wanna see any fake-ass workers / I need real builders." Neither the assembly line rhythms nor Davidson's charming voice will let you clock out now. A standout from Davidson's Working Class Woman, "Work it" sounds like a health goth SoulCycle anthem for the late capitalism era—in the best possible way.
Let's imagine you're a DJ with a lot of acid records—so many, in fact, that you reckon you've heard all the good ones, and whatever's out now sounds like it's all been done before. If that sounds like you, then trust us: Gila's "106 Slipper" is still essential stuff. It's at a tempo—106 BPM—that isn't all that common for 303 tracks, for a start. The acid line—actually more of a smudge—growls high in the mix, with an echo effect that screams "warehouse." At key points, the frenzied percussion rolls on and on, as though certain the next track will crank the pressure right up.
Object Blue released two excellent EPs this year. "Act Like It Then," from her debut release, is teasingly antagonistic, and samples Cardi B, one of the year's most commanding personalities. Rattling percussion amps up the chaos until a vocal line, spoken in Mandarin, briefly slows everything down for a moment of introspection.
If your ingredients are good, why muddle your flavors with a complicated recipe? That's the lesson we learn from this sternum-shaking breakbeat bomb, which sees Truss and Tessela deliver a seven-minute masterclass in simplicity. The pacing here is worth noting too—it's invigorating when that bass comes back in at the perfect moment after the breakdown.
“Bone Sucka” is the textbook definition of a "weird banger." It's got bass, breaks and laser-beam rave synths, but there's a quirkiness to everything that makes it both slightly silly and incredibly memorable. That also makes it classic Hessle Audio, balancing a love of novelty and a sense of humor with enough raw power to flatten the dance floor.
"Will still be good in 3018," wrote one RA commenter about Another Place, the debut EP from De School resident upsammy. This timeless quality felt particularly pronounced on the title track, a breakbeat bomb so steely and atmospheric it could have come out of The Hague 20 years ago. That it was made in 2018 by a 21-year-old is proof of upsammy's talent.
Morocco's Casa Voyager label, named after a train station in Casablanca, had a breakout year. Among the high-energy techno and funk-laden grooves, there was OCB's "Aquaquest Pt. 2 (The Anticlimax)," an emotional blend of acid, electro and house. This touching brand of dance music is Casa Voyager's specialty, and no track showcased it better than "Aquaquest Pt. 2 (The Anticlimax)."
For a few years, Joy Orbison didn't make tracks, he made anthems. His hit rate has slowed down—he last featured in our top tracks list in 2013—but don't let the lack of big hooks and hands-in-the-air moments put you off: the South Londoner is currently making some of the best music of his career. "Seed," the opener on this year's brilliant 81b EP, is a shining example, a screwface banger with a rude rhythmic core.
Soon doctors may start diagnosing electronic music fans with a strange new condition: "Aphex Twin fatigue." The blimps, the posters, the cryptic maps—it's all getting a bit much, right? Well, the thing is, the music still absolutely bangs. As long as Richard D. James keeps putting out records like this year's Collapse EP, it's hard to stay annoyed at him for long. That record's standout was "T69 Collapse," a rollercoaster ride of fits and starts, squalls and squeals, that, like all great Aphex Twin tracks, left you open-mouthed and scratching your head.
Following welcome detours with Vengeance Tenfold and Anika, Shackleton returned to his trademark sound on Furnace Of Guts. Signature Shackleton-isms abound, as Euclidean rhythms send non-Western drums refracting down a hall of digital mirrors. Synthetic synths twist into hypothetical instruments of extinct cultures. "Wakefulness And Obsession" also boasts the most straight-up drop we've heard from Shackleton in some time, a profoundly deep prospect for the dance.
If her debut release, Ab Initio, was any indication, Abby Echiverri's far-reaching pedigree in music and audio has equipped her with a powerful set of tools. It all comes together on "Nadezhda," an electro nightstalker that builds with a canny sleight-of-hand. Despite being staunchly retro-futuristic in its sound, the complete package feels modern and self-assured, combining the immediacy of a performed take with considered flourishes like a grainy answering machine recording and glittering Gameboy supernovas.
Slowed-down footwork or sped-up Bristol techno? "Flash React" is hard to pin down, but its mystery is central to its appeal. The acoustic-tinged drums have the focus of a percussion ensemble, offering minimalistic pitter-patter whose light touch signals an impending blow. When the punch lands, it's a quick and efficient jab shadowed by snatches of dissonance, recalling the paranoid urban landscapes of late '90s drum & bass. This half-imagined connection is aided by the occasional repitching of the sub, which gently signals to dubwise jungle. Yet much of the tonal content is surprisingly cheery, its light-heartedness forcing us yet again to reconsider just what the hell this tune is.
rRoxymore has always had a peculiar bent, but "Mythical Technology" is a particularly enticing concoction, mixing found-sound ambience and IDM-ready quirks with a playful melody. The cherry on the cake is the shift to a four-on-the-floor kick in the middle third, paired with a sub-line that wouldn't be out of place in a half-time jungle tune.
It's sometime after 5 AM on a busy dance floor. The night's been bubbling along nicely, but you and your friends are beginning to tire. A Sunday morning in bed seems more appealing by the minute. In this scenario, there are only a few tracks that a DJ could play to keep you on the dance floor. "Silky," by Peach, is one of them. Its diva vocal coos and mysterious synth tones are big, crowdpleasing gestures. But two specific details give "Silky" an added depth: a pinging rubber-band pulse, which gives the beat a kind of strutting confidence, and strings that seem to tap dance with joy.
The common theme of DJ Lilocox's first full record was rhythm. It's something the Portuguese artist and his Príncipe peers do exceedingly well, and much of Paz & Amor's appeal lay in its nuanced batida drum patterns. But on "Fronteiras," Lilocox added considerable emotional weight, with gentle chords that summoned an evocative late-night mood.
Burn The Witch
After LSDXOXO self-released his BODY MODS mixtape in January, the tracks appeared in club sets all year. "Burn The Witch," which samples the jazzy interlude on Missy Elliott's "I'm Really Hot," is the smoothest of the bunch, with hard drums, sexed-up vocals and slippery rhythms. Few tracks this year had so much attitude.
SOPHIE's debut album revamped pop music with wildly imaginative sound design. Of all its electric moments, "Immaterial" sits on top. It's a one-of-a-kind pop anthem, with sugary vocals, a chord progression that makes your serotonin rush—and lyrics that muse on the fluidness of identity. This is SOPHIE having blissful and silly fun.
Though he's also good at more exploratory tracks, Bruce's bangers are his trump card. The Bristolian's debut album gave him space to explore the extremes of his sound, with "What" ranking as his most intense dance floor production since "Not Stochastic." It keeps its cards close to its chest until a woman's voice is granulated into frozen sheets of shattering ice, which ratchets up the tension. And when he does push the red button a third of the way in, it's the vaguely Eastern tonality of the lead line that gives "What" its madcap intensity.
If the words "Joy O on Hessle Audio" call anything to mind, it's probably not psychedelic microhouse with saxophone on top. But that's what you get on "Transition 2," a sunny, offbeat, undulating groover with tripping saxophone from the artist Ben Vince. That something that sounds so odd should sound so perfectly natural on record shows how, over a decade into their respective catalogs, neither artist nor label have lost their edge.
Four Tet's 2018 remix credits include high-profile efforts for Bicep and the Norwegian pop singer Sigrid, but nothing captured his sound like his rework for Daniel Avery. First appearing as an exclusive 12-inch sold at London's Field Day festival in June, its official release a few weeks later brought its charm to a wider audience, revealing an intricate and detailed tune that moved from shimmering garage to mangled techno over nine spellbinding minutes.
Last month we called Kulør 001—the first release on Courtesy's new label—"an excellent primer on Copenhagen's fast techno scene," which nods to the city's trance era three decades prior. The compilation's highlight, "Automated Lover" by Shacke, is crunchy and dark, until labyrinthine synths wind through the atmosphere to create something as heavy as it is weightless.
Donato Dozzy's 2018 wasn't just about lulling dance floors into a trance with "Cleo." He also cooked up this pounding club track, unleashing an unnervingly aggressive side to his sound. The combined force of the compressed 303 and untamed kick drum create a determined menace—industrial strength acid ready to dissolve everything in its path.
On this year's album, Portrait With Firewood, Djrum recorded live instruments for the first time. The results were cinematic and emotionally rich, with cello, piano and vocal parts decorating his glossy drum & bass and techno tracks. "Sex," the LP's lead single, begins as effective but straightforward electro. Its dense string arrangements, revealed halfway through, made for unexpectedly poignant moments on the dance floor.
By definition, ambient music doesn't stand out. And it tends not to make lists like this. It's apt, then, that "J" wasn't so much a standout as something to sink into. Its dub techno pulse gave it a tidal motion, while silky tones gave it an immersive, goo-like consistency. If that all drew you into "J"'s depths, other details conveyed rippling surfaces and distant landmarks—you were adrift, but not far out enough to feel unsafe.
Four long years after Yellow Memories, Fatima returned, fired up and wiser, with And Yet It's All Love, a beautiful album shot through with musings on hope, sorrow and personal growth. RA's Max Pearl called it "complex yet catchy," a tag that rang particularly true on the LP's second single, "Caught In A Lie." Strapping Fatima's shapeshifting flow to a lithe and earthy Natureboy Flako beat, this one struck straight for the heart, an example of modern R&B at its best.
When Roisin Murphy and Maurice Fulton announced their four-EP collaboration earlier this year, it sounded like an ideal partnership: a vital pop artist and a master of disco-funk anthems. The results exceeded expectations. All eight tracks were exceptional, but "Plaything" was the most resonant. Though it nodded to Murphy's own music industry hassles, the track's theme of resilience, and the rousing funk keys that accompany it, had an effortless immediacy. "Plaything" drew from personal experience to express something universal, the mark of any compelling club or pop record.
"Problem Solving Program" is a standout in a banner year for Beta Librae. What makes this one so good? It might be the the scuffed textures, the jungle-inflected rhythms, the dizzying dual tempo of 90 / 180 BPM. Along with her Sanguine Bond LP from May, "Problem Solving Program" highlights Beta Librae as one of New York's most promising young artists.
There's two ways you can dance to Blawan's "Tasser," the standout track from 2018's biggest techno album. You can follow the straight-ahead tenacious drum pattern in a routine one-two step motion. Alternatively, you might embrace the peek-a-boo synth line in a fragmented twisting arm dance as it zig-zags through the track. However you move to it, this is a rare kind of fearsome club banger—one that retains a jester's sense of fun.
Sinjin Hawke & Zora Jones bend genres into futuristic shapes in the same way that their label, Fractal Fantasy, uses video to contort 3D visuals into dazzling forms. "God" is a prime example. The drums are somewhere between UK funky and reggaeton, the eerie vocals lifted from a recording of a Bulgarian choir. It's a melting pot where you can't quite pick out what the original ingredients were, and it's about as innovative as club music gets.
A great remix often identifies and amplifies a pivotal element from the original. Gerd Janson and Shan have already teamed up on a few big tracks, like 2017's "Surrender." On their "House Mix" of "Brainstorm," they embraced their inner Murk, crafting a peak-time house tune out of Paul Woolford's original. This version spotlights the original's cascade of pianos and Kerri Chandler-produced diva vocal, more than earning the spinbacks scattered throughout.
Superpitcher's shamanic sound was a perfect match for Talaboman's "Dins El Llit," a deep and spacey tune from last year's The Night Land. Over 11 minutes, melodies unfurl underneath vocals that bounce around the stereo field, burrowing deeper into your brain with every bar. Somewhere between heads-down hypnotism and goofy fun, this was among the year's most immersive remixes.
This year saw the Noton boss recontextualising his glitched-out sound design within more emotive forms. "Uni Blue" is the best example. With the forlorn drama of the final scene in a Hollywood sci-fi, grandiose, smouldering synths bleed into an infinite horizon as the distinctive percussion contrasts against a vast backdrop, creating a breathtaking sense of scale.
You can tell Nathan Micay has a cheeky sense of humor—he played Smashing Pumpkins on Beats In Space, and keeps a dub mix of "Macarena" on his USB at all times. But there's a sensitive side to Micay as well, which he revealed on "First Casualty," a big-room club track shot through with a bittersweet sense of optimism. Rolling, sonorous, widescreen and hi-def, this was the year's choice track for misty-eyed sunrises.
One of the year's most terrifying and exhilarating tracks, "Darknoise" plants the mosh-pit mob mentality of darkside hardcore within an isolationist dystopia, leaving space for harmonies conjuring feelings of bottomless sadness. Excruciatingly brief, it condenses more power into a few minutes than most producers manage in a lifetime.
From one record to the next, Laurel Halo makes staggering stylistic leaps—by now, they're connected not by how they sound, but by how they feel. And feel, specifically texture, is what "Raw Silk Uncut Wood" is all about. Synthetic horns and organ enmesh, flowing from optimism to elegy, before Oliver Coates' cello lends a sense of finality. Somehow, this ambient piece radiates the same anodyne longing as her pop and club experiments.