We often find the year’s closing article to be the hardest to write. More than a time of retrospective reflection, December has become a month of binge-listening, trying desperately to catch up with the ‘big records’ of the year. The problem with running a music blog is that it assumes a degree of musical omnipotence. If a music blog has any purpose in 2018, it is to provide a platform for artists that is distinct from that of the mainstream media. This requires an appreciation both of the year’s media-adorned artists and those criminally overlooked.
But the truth is we don’t want to only listen to music from the present. A lot of what we listened to in 2018 came from reissues, old records, genres we never ‘got’ before. Spotify reveals Vikingur Olaffsson’s 2018 performances of Bach’s piano works as top of one of our most played this year: new interpretations of music over 300 years old. We’ve otherwise been revisiting early Tom Waits and Art Blakey records, and other music from years gone by, electronic or otherwise. This isn’t because new music is lacklustre or that old music is better. Sometimes taste, fleeting and contingent as it is, is just like that sometimes. This is no bad thing either. After all, those who do not learn from music history are doomed to repeat it.
It would appear there have been others in a reflective mood this year – in July we were treated to a quiet film about Ryuichi Sakamoto. Entitled Coda, the film charts his rise to prominence with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, through to his battle with cancer and the incendiary works which followed this – his magical collaboration with Carsten Nicolai on The Revenant soundtrack and the meditative Async LP. Coda is a modest, gentle film well in keeping with the man himself, yet has an intimacy to it which feels touching given Sakamoto feels a very private character for the most part.
One thing that has struck us this year is the role of the record label. In 2018, when most artists begin and continue their careers through online streaming platforms (Bandcamp and Soundcloud, primarily), the status of record labels seems to have changed. But rather than becoming obsolete, labels have renewed their importance as a curational force. Music distribution becomes less about the practicalities surrounding distribution and more about forging a new style or coalescing disparate ideas.
Athenian label Hypermedium for example have continued to defy expectations this year, hosting the trival-indebted productions of Mexicali producer Siete Catorce following on from their last EP which looked to South Africa’s rich gqom scene. Back in Blighty, TT (formerly known as Tobago Tracks) had a remarkable year with a total of nine indispensable releases, ranging from the esoteric ambient of Litter Frog to the critically acclaimed release from object blue. There has also been some notable activity from longer running labels, Skam Records for example releasing Break Before Make a hypnotic LP of low-slung electro-futurism from Henrietta Rolla-Smith aka Afrodeutsche. Seeing her DJ at Somerset House early in the year marked her out as someone to keep an eye on, playing one of the most enjoyable sets of rugged Drexciyan techno I’ve seen this year.
While we are cautious around using words like ‘revival’, it’s also worth noting there’s been some excellent jungle released this year. In May, Illian Tapes’ Skee Mask released Compro – a glorious mix of thunderous breakbeats and Autechre-indebted melancholia, like a hazy, nostalgia filled recollection of a free-rave many years later. At the other end of the year was Etch’s Ups & Downs, on Sneaker Social Club. “Can you imagine being weightless? Not feeling the pressure of that chair under you…” begins the album’s cleverly used selection of film samples, and so begins the voyage. Ups & Downs is an expertly crafted work, reminiscent of early Photek and the deviant industrial production behind Bad Taste’s Trellion, handling classic jungle and drum and bass tropes with care and precision.
ZULI is another honourable mention, a producer who released two of 2018’s strongest records. The Cairo-based producer first caught our attention in May with his mind-bending Trigger Finger EP, fusing breakbeats and side-chained sub in genuinely groundbreaking ways. He followed this up with an unexpected debut LP, Terminal on Lee Gamble’s UIQ imprint, completing and perfecting the initial statement made by Trigger Finger.
There has also been some fantastically innovative work released by Stray Landings favourite, Shelley Parker. Many will have been exposed to her this year following the release of her brooding, dub-breakbeat EP Red Cotton EP on Hessle Audio, yet 2018 was also the year she quietly and modestly released Soundcheck, an inebriated, deep sea exploration through tape-chewed jungle, off-kilter techno and dense, concreté riddled ambient. The title for the EP references Shelley’s experience with a male producer telling her at a gig: “I don’t know if you know how this all works and maybe you’ve never done this before but it’s imperative – imperative – I finish my soundcheck first and you need to respect that.”
Unfortunately incidents of sexism like the above have continued, and 2018 has been punctuated by some wider structural issues in electronic music. In April, Radar Radio permanently closed its doors after a mass exodus of DJs from the station in response to claims of sexual harassment, racism, homophobia, and transphobia at the station. The details of the allegations and Radar’s ensuing closure have already been written about in great detail, but for anyone who needs updating should head to Ashtart Al-Hurra’s truthful Mixed Spices blog for the full account. If there can be any silver lining to the Radar scandal, it would be the opening of this brilliant new blog.
Another high-profile case of sexism within electronic music was the ongoing scandal surrounding Konstantin. After his infamous 2017 interview in which he claimed that “women are usually worse at DJing than men”, Konstantin was incredulously invited to play three separate parties at Amsterdam’s ADE festival. The decision was widely criticised and prompted an open letter calling for ADE to drop Konstantin from the bill, with over 2000 signatures. The festival responded to the criticism by inviting him onto a panel discussion of sexism in the industry. The reasons for this bizarre move remain known to ADE’s organisers only. With cases like the above still happening in 2018, the importance of groups like female:pressure, who this year celebrated their 20th birthday, feel all the more renewed.
State politics have also played out this year in a number of incidents connected to electronic music. In May, Georgian police carrying automatic weapons raided two of Tbilisi’s most celebrated (and LGBTQ+ friendly) clubs, Bassiani and Cafe Gallery. The following days saw demonstrations of thousands on the city’s main boulevard, including counter-demonstrations from the city’s far-right. Police claimed that the armed operation was conducted purely for the seizure of drug dealers, but the move was simultaneously celebrated by Tbilisi’s far-right who denounced the ravers as “drug propagandists” and “sodomites”. The future of Tbilisi’s gay clubbing scene in light of a burgeoning far-right still remains uncertain.
In September, a large number of DJs participated in the social media campaign #DJsForPalestine, co-ordinated by PACBI (Palestinian Campaign For The Cultural Boycott of Israel). After DJ collective Room for Resistance shared the campaign, Berlin’s ://about blank club promptly cancelled their upcoming party, citing “irreconcilable differences” between the club and the DJ collective on the question of Palestinian solidarity. The cancellation left Room for Resistance with an outstanding bill to cover the costs of artists’ travel fees, time and other expenses, but was successfully covered by a crowdfund campaign.
Finally, this month saw DJ and producer Klaus convicted of terrorism-related charges for stopping a deportation flight leaving Stansted Airport. For this act of peaceful protest, Klaus and the other members of the Stansted 15 could receive a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. As ‘Brexit Day’ fast looms on the horizon of next year, the antagonisms between music and state are surely due to intensify. But exactly how Brexit impacts the lives of electronic musicians, and the ultimate fate of the Stansted 15 in particular, is yet to be seen.
2018 has seen a string of contradictions and narratives which do not fit together as neatly as we might like. Summarising the year in this way may therefore feel like a last-minute hodge-podge of ideas: the last dregs of Christmas Pudding on the plate. It is also highly unlikely that many of the structural issues mentioned above will significantly change in 2019 either. But we can take some comfort in the endless outpouring of music that is made with passion and love, in spite of the political antagonisms that surround us. If there is one thing that can unite the music we have enjoyed this year, it is a playfulness and risk-embracing experimentation which feels a welcome antidote to the rather professorial swathes of ‘deconstructed club music’ popular this year. As our friend object blue put it recently: “will club music be put back together in 2019?”
Find a playlist of just some of the music we have enjoyed below, and have a happy new year.