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The Best Electronic Music Writing Of 2016

THUMP asked me to come up with 20 pieces of notable electronic dance writing from 2016. Instead, I stopped at 30, for a few reasons. For starters, whatever the mainstream music media thinks, electronic music is pop music now. Almost no side of modern pop is untouched by it, or avoids its methodology, from Drake to Rihanna to Flume. If you’re going to eulogize Prince or write about Radiohead, you have to acknowledge the fact that both can comfortably be dubbed electronic musicians, however much their guitars may shred. (In Radiohead’s case, it’s almost a joke: People still insist on considering them a rock band even though they haven’t made a “rock” album in 20 years.)

The other reason is that writers write. They have to, and no one’s going to stop themincluding Donald Trump. Dance culture experienced a lot of obstacles and triumphs in 2016, and a heightened sense of urgency marks many of these pieceswhether their authors were bearing down on recordings, digging into the archives, getting key figures on the record, looking at dancing in itself (particularly in hip-hop), or mourning the horrifying tragedies of Orlando and Oakland. The 30 selections below are listed in chronological order. They speak for themselves via excerpts, but of course, you’ll want to read them in full.

1. Tom Ewing, “Best New Reissue: Primal Scream, Screamadelica” (Pitchfork, January 4)

The meeting of these approaches unashamed, celebratory club music and rock star fandom is what gives Screamadelica its particular mood, half strutting with confidence, half yearning for transcendence. One result is that the record is often better when Bobby Gillespie is a presiding spirit rather than an actual singer. Compare album centrepiece “Come Together” with its single version, where Gillespie enacts a loved-up Ecstasy high in winsome style. The LP drops his vocals, reshapes the track around the gospel backing singers, and it becomes something titanic. It’s a full-length manifesto not just for the brotherhood of clubbing but for the syncretic approach to rock Primal Scream were exploring. “All those are just labels,” thunders a sampled Reverend Jesse Jackson, “We know that music is music.” If you want to know how joyful and how corny pop’s discovery of rave could feel in 1991, this is where to start.

2. Michelle Lhooq, “The Comeback Kid: Michael Alig’s Return to New York Nightlife” (THUMP, January 7)

After eating our ice cream, we parted ways. Leaning against the subway gates as strangers swarmed around us, I asked if he’d encountered any backlash for his plans to re-enter the nightlife game, or if he would reconsider that decision if he knew it would upset Melendez’s family. Alig said he hadn’t spoken to Melendez’s relatives because of the plea deal, but if he knew they were upset by the fact that he was doing events, “it would impact my decisions.”

Still, he wasn’t sure what else he should be doing with his life. “I can’t stop making art or thinking of these crazy projects,” he explained.

“Everybody in this country can do whatever they want to do,” Alig said with a determined jut of his chin. “I found this out because I had to, moving to New York and not knowing anyoneI had to make things work. It’s the same for this show. I have this tenacious part of me that keeps doing it until it clicks.” He gave me a raw look stripped of all flamboyant posturing, then disappeared into the subway. It was nearly midnight, and I realized he still hadn’t called his parole officer.

3. Rawiya Kameir, Davido cover story (The FADER, February 18)

Davido released his first singles in 2011, while he was still in school. In the previous years, artists like D’banj, Wande Coal, and P-Square had developed a new sound for Nigerian pop, by pulling elements from R&B, hip-hop, and house, and blending them with Nigerian rhythms and melodies. The wave’s primary currency was its cool, led by singers who wore designer clothes and engineered songs for the clubs. Their music was more concerned with letting loose than standing against the country’s corrupt, oppressive government. “Before, the most popular Nigerian music was a way to give expression to the people. You could still dance to it, but it was a way to challenge politics,” Michael Ugwu, general manager of Sony West Africa, tells me later. “But these new guys, all they wanted was to have fun. It was a new image for Africa.”

4. Alexis Petridis, “Andrew Weatherall: ‘Anyone can make music. What a double-edged sword.’” (The Guardian, February 25)

Whatever his career has been, it has left Andrew Weatherall quite the raconteur. He has a way with words he describes a DJ set by Scottish duo Slam as “absolutely full-knacker proper panel-beaters-from-Prague-‘ere-we-go techno” an endless store of anecdotes, and an intriguing set of cultural reference points: “I’m an autodidact, because I got chucked out of school.” Over the course of an hour and a half we go from Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent to the ‘magnificence’ of Wizzard’s 1974 album Introducing Eddy and the Falcons, via Francis Bacon and William Burroughs’ line about how if you’re in a hurry to show somebody your art, you should throw it in the trash because it’s bound to be rubbish. “Be patient. Very pertinent to today,” he says. “Digital culture sells you this theory that if you don’t get involved immediately, you’re going to be left behind. When you see an advert for broadband, it’s always got a caveman in it, because if you haven’t got the latest broadband, you’re a caveman. But if you’re making music or any art, just wait, wait six months, see if you still like it. If you release something immediately, you’re not going to be happy with it and it’s just going to be part of the digital noise.” He chuckles. “Here we are at the apex of the punk-rock dream, the democratisation of art, anyone can do it, and what a double-edged sword that’s turned out to be, has it not?”

5. Andrew Ryce, “America’s Gay Techno Underground” (Resident Advisor, March 7)

With parties as wild as they were musically credible, Honey Soundsystem was proof you could put on a queer event with ambition and an edge. It became one of San Francisco’s most notable parties regardless of your sexuality, though it was still rooted in and supported by its core gay crowd. Honey brought relevant musical guests from all over the world, bringing a sense of curation, and a sense of vitality, to the gay scene. It was just the kick in the ass SF’s nightlife needed.

6. David Turner, “Inside Atlanta’s Booming Hip-Hop Dance Scene” (MTV News, March 23)

Northwest of Georgia, in Memphis, 22-year-old entertainer Richard “ILoveMemphis” Colbert decided in 2014 to try and capitalize on the social mediadriven teen dance trend. His early songs, like “Google Me” and “#ChopItUp,” were naked attempts to follow the success of the Nae Nae and all that came in its wake. None of these songs broke out on a national stage, but they got him some local buzz and established him on Instagram and YouTube. Colbert found a crucial moment of inspiration after seeing people doing the Quan a dance originating in a YouTube clip that shows Rich Homie Quan executing a loose sashay across a Tampa, Florida, stage last January. The Quan is easy and fun to imitate, and an insightful friend suggested that Colbert write a song to go with it. Thus was born his Top 40 single “Hit the Quan,” the spiritual sequel to “Watch Me.”

7. Elissa Stolman, “A DJ, a PR, and a Writer Dissect the Music Media” (Electronic Beats, March 25)

Avalon Emerson: Internet rule number one: don’t read the comments. I have a question: over the past five years or so, have you seen a change in the PR process?

Melissa Taylor: Well, five years ago, if you sent a report to distribution and was full of online stuff, you’d probably get fired. The main distributors had absolutely no respect for online at all. Blogs were completely immaterial. It was difficult for us to get them to do good press online because it was badly viewed and everything was still geared toward print. When everything started going tits-up for print, obviously it changed. It’s actually nice because it can make things more immediate.

AE: The decline in the importance of print has put pressure on retweets and stuff, which is kind of a kneejerk reaction, as if it’s a direct measure of your return on your investment. ‘This got 42 retweets; that’s twice as good as something that got 21.’ It’s really easy to flatten everything into that one dimension of shares, pageviews, clickswhateverbut without contextual weight, it’s not an accurate measure of success.

8. Alex Macpherson, “Bring It Like a Superhero: London’s Vogue Scene Is Rising” (Mixmag, March 31)

To many queer kids who had hitherto only known of voguing through its few mainstream representations Madonna’s 1990 hit “Vogue,” for example, and Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s classic documentary of the same year discovering that it was alive and well was a revelation. Manchester ballroom guru Cvnt Traxxx went had a personal revelation following a 2009 drag ball in Glasgow and soon discovered the work of DJs such as New Yorker MikeQ, who plays every week at Vogue Nights and is part of the Qween Beat squad, and Houston producer B. Ames. “It was so exciting to find that this culture isn’t dead or just a historical artefact,” he says. He also explains that, for him, the scene is a revitalisation of moribund house music. “In the last decade, I’d felt house was very much removed from its original context – dance music primarily made for queer people, people of colour, marginalised people. I wanted to make music for dancers, not a room of middle class white people nodding their heads. Ballroom is the essence of what house is: it’s very inspiring for me as a producer knowing there are specific sounds that trigger specific moves.” Its wider appeal, he says, is also an ideological one. “The reality is that society isn’t going to give you your dreams if you’re a queer POC,” he explains. “Voguing is all about aspirations and dreams, especially ones that people in the culture know are denied to them on a daily basis. You enter the world of ballroom and it’s this dreamspace where you can live out your secret desires and make them come true.”

9. Alex Frank, “Kaytranada Is Reaching 100%” (The FADER, April 5)

His sister offered to help him find a psychologist, but he declined. Instead, he focused on coming out to his mom and his brother. In truth, he had sort of already told them. At the age of 16, in a fit of self-assertion, he had admitted to both of them that he was bisexual, but had quickly retreated and never spoke about it again. “It was too many emotions at the same time,” Louis-Philippe remembers. “I was like, ‘Oh that’s good,’ and at the same time, I was like, ‘Oh what does mom think?’ We’re Haitians, and Haitians don’t appreciate gay people at all. I thought maybe it was a phase.” And on the outside it may have looked like one: not long after, Kay ended up involved in a long-term relationship with a woman that ended only last year. Finally, in early winter, he told his brother and mother definitively that he was gay. Though his mother, a Catholic, did bring up Bible verses that condemn homosexuality, Kay says both were supportive and told him that they’d always love him no matter what. “I feel better than I ever have, you know?” he says. “I’ve been sad my whole life, but fuck that. I know I have good things ahead. I don’t know honestly if I’m fully, 100 percent happy, but I’m starting to get there.”

10. Philip Sherburne, “Popping the Drop: A Timeline of How EDM’s Bubble Burst” (Pitchfork, April 5)

June 2012: Swedish House Mafia announce their imminent breakup and farewell tour, just 23 months after releasing the debut single from their collaborative alias. The “farewell” phase of the trio’s career will last nine months.

11. Phillip Mlynar, “Hip-House: An Oral History” (RBMA Daily, May 2)

FREDRO STARR: New York in ’88, ’89 had the Jungle Brothers come out with “I’ll House You,” and the shift in hip hop changed hip hop became hip house, that’s what the fuck they was calling it! legacy.”

26. Ezra Marcus, “When White Producers Co-Opt Black Identity” (Thump, October 27)

Similarly to hip-hop, black and Latino people created house and techno as a spiritual response to real social problems like homophobia, racism and governmental neglect. So when a white artist uses the words “ghetto” and “hood,” co-opts the iconography of social housing, suggests that all struggles are equal, or makes up a tragic backstory, I would argue that he or she effectively erodes that music’s function as a source of spiritual power and resistance for the specific communities from which it emerged. It’s one thing to make work inspired by a specific musical styleit’s another to co-opt the struggles that gave rise to it in order to package and promote your own work.

27. Matthew Trammell, “The Beats Fuelling the Viral Dance Challenges” (The New Yorker, November 4)

Viral dances are nothing new, and are notoriously fleetingremember the Harlem Shake? But challenges, and the songs that score them, add a connective, traceable nervous system to the writhing mass of grainy video loops. Though these songs are stripped of their initial contexts, they share origins as outliers in their time and genres that briefly shifted the shape of the mainstream sound. Simply put, these were already challenging songs, and it’s no coincidence that audiences found more energy to wring out from each of them. Their revivals underscore the appeal of a good challenge, artistic or otherwise: discomfort, growth, and a meaningful connection. If there’s anything Americans seemed to have agreed on this year, it’s that a good dare is worth its terms, and that the best songs are always fair game.

28. Tim Lawrence, “The Legacy of David Mancuso” (Electronic Beats, November 21)

David’s commitment to fundamental principles rewarded him with a room packed full of an ecstatic dancers by the time of his anniversary party the following February; that night I began to grasp what The Loft must have been like during peak years in the 1970s and early 1980s. But a short while later David was forced to start all over again when the friend from whom he was subletting the space defaulted on the rent. This marked the moment when David was forced to vacate the last home that was spacious enough for him to throw a party, which in turn suggested that The Loft had come to an anticlimactic end. David seemed to go downhill during this period, and there were times when he became harder to reach. It seemed incredible that the person who was beginning to seem as though he might turn out to have been the most influential figure in the history of dance culture had reached the point of losing everything.

29. Gabe Meline, “It Could Have Been Any One of Us” (KQED Arts, December 4)

I feel strange typing these words, because I no longer live in communal artist spaces like this. But they stay with you. They shape us, make us more fearless, give us confidence, validate our dreams. We never forget what those spaces gave us, especially those of us who turned those dreams into a life, and re-fit ourselves back into a once ill-fitting world.

The people lost to the Oakland fire will never get that chance.

30. Marke B., “In the Ghost Ship Aftermath” (48 Hills, December 4)

Talking about all that was comforting, and knowing that people in nightlife venues throughout the Bay Area were talking about it was, too. (Almost all of the parties I knew of on Saturday night were dedicated to paying tribute to the missing or raising money for their families.) And when some of the Bay Area’s biggest jocks, the Oakland A’s and Raiders, and San Francisco’s most avant-garde electronic music performance venue, Gray Area, are both hosting huge fundraisers for the same cause, a real feeling of unity emerges. Please donate.

The days ahead are going to be very, very hard, as the hole torn through the Bay Area nightlife community will become more painful and obvious. On top of all that, the bullies and idiots of the world are attacking us, too. And some very tricky issues and serious questions about the venue will arise: Already some in power are trying to use this tragedy to further marginalize artists and performers. If the licensed venues and living spaces are too costly and the unlicensed ones are shut down or evicted, what will artists do?


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