Rumour has it Seth Troxler was knocked off his no.1 spot on Resident Advisor’s annual DJ chart this year, triggering uproar at the RA offices. As an act of peaceful protest, they declined to publish their end of year list until Troxler reaches his rightful spot once more.
In 2017, end-of-year lists do seem a little passe. Experience of music today just doesn’t lend itself to indexes and checklists. In the age of the internet, music can come at you from all directions: from trending social media to Bandcamp obscurities. As a consequence, we are often rewarded with unexpected listening experiences. Genres you once hated with burning fervour now have a certain charm. Maybe you have been too close-minded to appreciate the nuances of Ukranian hardstyle. In the right context, novel music can leave you spinning off into a new world of interest, like a dreidel ricocheting from a table leg.
But a list, neatly compiled into an easily-digestible sequence, just doesn’t pair with the non-linearity of hearing new music. Unless you are some Austin Powers figure, cryogenically unfrozen in the future and wanting an historical record of what was popular in 2017, a list of the year’s ‘best’ albums is kind of lackluster. At its peak, an end-of-year list only represents a seemingly random collective of unconnected music from writers of divergent tastes: a horse designed by committee.
In the past, we’ve tried to negate this by ending the year with a list of highlights we have failed to cover over the past 12 months. These articles functioned like a kind of annual apology to music we forgot to cover, either through laziness or cultural lag. Highlighting our own incompetence may not be best practice, but to say nothing at the end of a year of superb music would be a great discredit to many. There is simply too much going on; too many unpaid hours of artistic labour and devotion not to be recognised.
One of the first things to note is that we haven’t seen a cultural renaissance in ‘political’ music as many had predicted. A number of grizzled commentators in the British press have expressed their bemusement at the political engagement of ‘young people’ this year (whatever that means). Where, they ask, are the protest songs of the Brexit-Trump generation? Where are the righteous battle-cries of sprightly Corbynistas? With the notable exception of ‘Grime for Corbyn’ and ‘Grime for Grenfell’, these anthems simply don’t exist. Maybe their rarity is a blessing. God help us if the Billy Bragg of vapourwave turns up. Perhaps political energy is better spent elsewhere.
Indeed, although there may have been few political anthems, we are not short of political agents. This year has seen an increased scrutiny of club culture’s internal structures and social hierarchies. Venues, festivals and big-name artists have been increasingly under the spotlight (or ‘called out’) for their bullshit. In particular, London’s new wave of pseudo-pirate broadcasters: Radar Radio, Balamii and Boiler Room.
The obvious and by now well-known example is Radar Radio’s founder being the son of Sports Direct owner, business cowboy and fireplace vomiter Mike Ashley. The relationship extends beyond familial ties however, with Radar bailed out of staggering debts by a company in which Mike Ashley holds his shares in both Sports Direct and Newcastle United. The whole affair leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth when paired with their ‘footwork’ series: a monthly blog advertising the latest trends in footwear.
An article from 2013 also resurfaced this year, detailing a horrific incident involving Balamii Radio’s founder and head, James Browning. Browning had his own ties to big finance, having lost his job as a city stock broker after violently assaulting a taxi driver on a night out, after refusing to pay a fair. The gravity of the incident extends far beyond drunken masculine bravado, leaving the cab driver in need of plastic surgery after having his head slammed in the cab door. In an interview earlier in the year with Browning, Ransom Note stated that, “community is at the heart of everything [Balamii] do”, a claim now cast in some doubt.
The issue surrounding Boiler Room and Notting Hill carnival and their boring, predictable response has been widely discussed and criticised this year. Anyone who needs a catch-up can find a succinct and truthful summary over at the fabulous Gal-Dem page. Reflecting on it now, it is genuinely startling how fast an institution can buckle under its own weight. When I was first getting into dance music, I used to watch their pixelated webcam streams in the hope of hearing a new James Blake dubplate. In 2017, they were spending part of their £300k Arts Council funding on branded lighters with a bottle opener on it.
Progress, it seems, must come from elsewhere. One place to look is the increase of events for and by women and non-binary people. In London, UNITI deliver some of the city’s most vibrant parties, leaving many of the major new venues, such as the colossal Printworks and its conservative (read: patriarchal) booking policy, trailing behind. Many new projects are also making reparations for systemic imbalances in music tech. Music Hackspace and Synaptic Island have been offering coding and DJ workshops specifically for people of oppressed genders.
Of the more interesting ‘big venues’ in London, the Barbican Centre has afforded the chance to see a number of artists on the ‘before you die’ list. Earlier this month I was lucky enough to witness Leyland Kirby’s unique showmanship first hand, drinking a bottle of Jameson and miming along to a couple of sluggishly processed ’30s ballroom tracks before stumbling his way off stage in a special Caretaker performance in tribute to the brilliant, and now sadly departed, Mark Fisher. Many fans of Fisher’s writing have also been revisiting his acclaimed K-Punk blogs this year.
Wolfgang Voigt also dusted off the GAS project for a performance of Narkopop; the first album he has released under the alias for a good 15 years. There was also a performance of Philip Glass’ Music in Twelve Parts, in its full five hour glory. Where else can you find this? Their run looks set to continue too, with Alva Noto and Anne-James Chaton already booked in for 2018.
Anyone who has been following Stray Landings this year may have also noticed a preoccupation for all things Swedish. This is in part for actually having visited Stockholm this summer and its powerhouse institutions (Norbergfestival, EMS, Fylkingen). But there has also been a staggering volume of releases coming from the city and its descendants. At the start of the year, we had Ellen Arkbro’s iconic For Organ & Brass, an album which has been on endless repeat for me since its release. Many will also have heard Caterina Barbieri’s bright and brilliant Patterns of Consciousness, an album that arguably overshadowed another from Barbieri, written and recorded alongside Carlo Maria under their ‘Punctum’ moniker at EMS. This album, Remote Sensing, is a far moodier vision in comparison to Barbieri’s solo record, but remains the dark horse of the two.
We also had two brilliant LPs from Yair Elazar Glotman: Compound on Subtext and Negative Chambers with Mats Erlandsson. If that wasn’t enough, we were treated to two Swedish releases on Conditional (on whom more later) from Maria W Horn and Daniel M Karlsson. With so much of 2017’s best music coming from one city, one may wonder what’s going on over there to fuel this creative drive? I’m still figuring that one out.
For many, 2017 was also soundtracked by the breathtaking new series of Twin Peaks, featuring a wealth of new music, both new and old. Many were surprised to hear that Lynch himself produced most of the sound design, featuring noisy industrial remixes of Beethoven, Penderecki and er, Lenny Kravitz. The style of this new series featured a new act to perform at the Roadhouse venue at the end of each episode, like a kind of American chat show format. Despite the questionable appearance of Hudson Mohawke, there were also guest appearances from indie dream pop bands and even Alex Zhang Hungtai (better known as Dirty Beaches), whose new ‘Love Theme’ project produced some of the most stirring dark-ambient of the year. Anyone looking for some other great ambient this year should find Jasmine Guffond’s Traced and PAN’s Mono No Aware compilation.
Imprints like Horo and Hidden Hawaii continued to revitalise, and offer fresh perspectives on the techno/drum and bass crossover. DB1’s Zwischenwelt or ‘in between worlds’ was a notable highlight, as the title might suggest occupying a space between D&B and dub techno with deft ability. The release is one of great depth and warmth, intricate 160bpm+ rhythms blushed with rich ambience and delicate sound design.
Then there have been labels like Haunter, ICM Records and Conditional showing how divergent approaches to running a label ‘DIY style’ can be. Alongside tees, zippo lighters and at one point convincing me they’d begun selling football scarves as well, Haunter have unleashed a slew of deadly percussive abstractions. In April they put out Petit Singe’s ‘Akash Ganga’, an explosive combination of ruptured breakbeats and sampled references to her birthplace, Bengala, following this with John T Gast’s Inna Babylon, an astral exploration into downtempo electronica. For ICM or ‘In Context Music’, 2017 was a year of resurgence, reopening their run of lathe cut 7”s with a fascinating series of electroacoustic oddities.
One trend that was overlooked in 2017 was the growing microcosm of interest in what I dub ‘neo-minimalism’. There were two releases on Conditional in this vein: Sebastian Camen’s Tan Object and Richard’s Pocket Protection, as well as six quickfire digital releases from tuuun’s nascent FLUF imprint. These releases focus heavily on the soundwaves themselves, and little else. Listening to these tracks is like putting a synthesiser under the microscope, to watch its ‘inner life’. The result is a difficult but ultimately rewarding move away from the oversaturated, ‘reverb-drenched’ electronics that were once so in vogue.
EVOL provided an exemplary of this at FASMA and Norberg Festival this year, soundtracking a crazed-technicolour light show with jarringly clean frenetic square-wave modulations. Another label treading similar water is of course SM-LL, who this year released a new Typeface EP for every month in the year. The idea was, in true minimalist style, to constrain one’s creative process to this one simple rule: leave everything unwritten until the month itself had arrived. Like an experimental music soap opera, I was hooked from the first instalment.
The fate of other imprints has been less happy. In a difficult to disentangle piece of PR-y obfuscation, Raster-Notion divided the label in two for reasons which aren’t entirely clear, other than due to the administrative difficulties of running a label across cities. It was a shock to see the split of an entity which has been running for 18+ years. The announcement was especially bizarre given the release of ‘Source Book 1’ earlier this year; a modular book designed so that it would be possible to “update the content in due time”, suggesting the label’s separation may have been decided rather abruptly. Olaf Bender continues adding to the catalog of Raster Media, while Carsten Nicolai helms Noton, so in many ways all is not lost. However, it does feel like the end of an era to lose an imprint which wielded such authority in the world of minimal electronics, and also one which had worked hard to become more inclusive, freeing itself of some of the stereotypes which surround academic-leaning musical scenes.
2017 has been another year of political turbulence, social degradation and economic turmoil. This doesn’t look set to change anytime soon. But if you’re looking for a source of momentary escapism, the music mentioned above may be helpful in some way. Optimism can seem foolhardy, London’s community can feel like a forgotten dream, and the financial prospects of musicians and artists at large seem to get bleaker by the month. Yet once again we find ourselves overwhelmed by the endless streams of dynamic and inventive new music from all around.
These days it sometimes feels like each person flicking through records in a store or queueing to have their wristband fitted at a festival has their own place in the scene, by virtue of making music themselves, running a night, blog or related project. Rather than rolling our eyes in that “everyone’s a pundit” kind of way, it’s worth considering the transformative effects this widespread involvement can have, and is already having in the world of electronic music. We are seeing a democratisation of DIY labels, bolstered by the support of DIY festivals, blogs, radio shows and more.
So while we’re doubtful 2018 is going to get any easier, we can take comfort in the fact localised scenes appear to be coalescing again. This is an odd twist of fate given a few years ago we would have argued the effect of the Internet was leading to the exact opposite. What else is there to say? Here is our incomplete, biased, oversimplified summary of our favourite music this year: the final dregs of Christmas Pudding on the plate.