I don’t know from “favorites” — my experience of music is too contextual, varied and, frankly, fraught with professional obligation for me to bust out an easy top 10 list of personal faves. But if you want to know what song made me feel most alive this year, that’s easy: Rebolledo’s “Windsurf, Sunburn and Dollar (Extended Raw Version).” And by “alive,” I mean a-freaking-live: BASE jumping into the mouth of a volcano, carving through a hurricane on a cigarette boat, screaming down the concrete bed of the L.A. River on a motorcycle, by the light of the full moon, while the city goes up in flames — that kind of alive.
It’s a mind-bending psychedelic freakout that asks what dance music might sound like if it were rooted in the MC5 instead of Kraftwerk, or if Steve Reich had joined a biker gang and developed a heavy speed habit. No matter how many times I’ve listened to it — and that’s been dozens, easily — nothing about it ever makes any sense. And that sense of bewilderment just keeps me going back for more.
The beat is mind-numbingly rudimentary — just a clockwork kick/hi-hat/snare pattern with a few handclaps thrown in to lend a bit of disco sass. The only tonal element is a single, overdriven power-chord that drops in pitch as it peals, like the Doppler effect on a car engine. The guitar’s tremolo-like pulsations, meanwhile, suggest the way the wind flutters in your ears when the driver’s window is cracked open an inch; you can tell that Rebolledo is serious about his motorik metaphors. (The Mexican producer and DJ has likened his style to driving through a tunnel; the 1974 Porsche 911 on the cover is his own.) And then there are the lyrics. I still don’t know what that title is supposed to mean, but hey, at least it tells us what he’s singing. The closest I can decipher is something like “Windsor sumble ‘ndooah,” howled over and over again — part koan, part primal scream.
Beyond the immediate, visceral thrill of the thing, what I loved most about it was Rebolledo’s audaciousness. The song felt less like a garden-variety club track than an all-out assault on convention; a pitched battle to ensure that techno will not succumb to catatonia.
We could use more of that sort of audacity, because, let’s face it, house and techno have gotten a little complacent in their old age. Digital vanguardists like Arca and Holly Herndon have stolen their futurist thunder; EDM main-stagers have snagged their populist spotlight. The beat keeps soldiering on — oonce oonce oonce oonce — but it’s not making many new converts. (I’ve been struck, here at year’s end, by how little house and techno has turned up in any general-interest publications’ year-end lists.) And in the music’s principal stomping grounds, like mid-capacity clubs in Ibiza, it’s not doing much more than marking time.
As EDM has grown to gargantuan proportions, many a true-schooler has drawn an imaginary line between the mainstream and the alleged underground, but there are two things wrong with that formulation. For one thing, most of the would-be undergrounders are not underground by any stretch of the imagination. They play in multimillion-dollar clubs and are signed to bigwig booking agents and talent managers; they employ assistants to download their promos and leave feedback in their name. Nor, frankly, are they doing anything much more interesting than EDM’s alleged button-pushers; they play functional dance music for people to party to. The music is suffused in whooshing crescendos and Pavlovian climaxes. “Underground,” like “indie,” has become a badge of a certain kind of taste, but it is rarely a useful descriptive term, and as an honorific, it’s often claimed by those least deserving of the honors.
Still, far from the middle-of-the-road DJ polls, where mediocrity reigned, there was plenty to celebrate this year, plenty to remind me why techno and house are still my go-to form of dance music. Most encouraging was the prevalence of the same kind of altered-states euphoria that made Rebolledo’s tune (and, indeed, his entire Momento Drive mix CD) so enthralling. For night-driving tunnel-travelers, it was hard to beat C.P.I.’s “El Túnel,” a song that actually mixed perfectly with “Windsurf, Sunburn and Dollar.” Produced by Barcelona’s Marc Piñol and Berlin’s Hugo Capablanca, it was the highlight of John Talabot’s Hivern Discs label this year, which is saying something, and its B-side cut, “Proceso,” delivered similar pleasures: clammy acid sequences, kicked-amplifier clang, drones like a Kevlar flying carpet. Barnt, who offered his own “El Túnel” remix, tapped into a similar kind of mid-fi psychedelia with his excellent debut album, Magazine 13.
Amsterdam’s Juju & Jordash managed a new career highlight with their phenomenal Clean-Cut LP, carefully balancing structured steppers like the title cut with the more freeform sprawl of their live, all-hardware improv jams. The album keeps revealing new ideas with every listen, and I expect it will do so for a long time to come. The duo’s Jordan Czamanski kept up his solo activities as Jordan CGZ, too, turning out three killer cuts of off-kilter house frugging with overtones of Manuel Göttsching and Pat Metheny. That record, the Digitalis EP, came out on Washington, D.C.’s Future Times label, whose cofounder Maxmillion Dunbar released the curious, gorgeous Drizzling Glass EP on The Trilogy Tapes, marrying his usual greased-up machine funk with the eerie glow of early-’90s-sampling keyboards. The Trilogy Tapes was, as usual, a buy-on-sight proposition — if only for Will Bankhead’s stunning cover art — even if you never quite knew what you were going to get out of it. One of my favorites on that label this year came from Zennor, a new collaboration between Peverelist and fellow Bristolian Andy Mac in which the erstwhile bass musicians delved deep into moody deep house indebted to early Daft Punk and Pepe Bradock. Oh, and to get back to Max D and his crew — and to underscore the extent to which the outer-limits dance music scene is very much a family affair — let’s not forget Protect-U’s album Free USA. Talk about a timely title! And making good on it, they made Future Times’ spring-loaded funk, Detroit-inspired techno, and Juno-led retro-proto-house jams sound more utopian than ever — a roadmap to a better world.
While a lot of what I privileged in house and techno this year was, as you can see, its eccentric wing — the artists stretching four-to-the-floor music almost, but not quite, to the breaking point — another school I adored was far more relentlessly formalist. Steffi’s Power of Anonymity and Efdemin’s Decay both turned hookless, resolutely linear techno conventions into something both efficient and deeply expressive; listening to the intricate pulsations of Steffi’s tracks, with their dozens of moving parts, each one felt like a machine constructed for the express purpose of recording and transmitting the wordless stuff of dreams. The inverse of that approach could be found on Kassem Mosse’s Workshop 19 and Joey Anderson’s After Forever, which exploited the sense of friction implied by bumpy grooves and frayed patch cables and suggested house music as a music of resistance, both literal and figurative.
Which brings us to Theo Parrish’s American Intelligence. The Detroit producer is, at this point, one of American dance music’s true elder statesmen — in attitude, anyway, if not calendar years. While his discography only stretches back to the mid ’90s, Parrish’s freeform style of DJing and his formidable scope (encompassing funk, soul, disco, and jazz along with house and techno) qualify him as one of the few true heirs to foundational artists like Larry Levan and Ron Hardy; he’s an ambassador to a dance-music tradition that is quickly being forgotten. The fact that it had been eight years since Parrish’s last album, 2007′s Sound Sculptures Volume 1, would be enough to make any new longplayer a cause for celebration. But American Intelligence also turned out to be an event, released as both a nine-song, gatefold vinyl triple-pack and a 15-song double CD breaking the two-hour mark.
He leaves no stone unturned in this hypnotic, Spartan tour-de-force of crafty drum-machine programming and ruminative Rhodes chords, of cloudy shapes flecked with whispers and chants. There’s “Footwork,” a broken-beat mantra whose mournful overtones sound even sadder in a year in which we lost DJ Rashad, Chicago footwork’s beloved ambassador, to an accidental drug overdose. “Make No War” samples Barrington Levy and pivots into hypnotic jazz-dance. “Ah” reconfigures ambient as devotional music. And the standout of all the house-oriented cuts here, “Be in Yo Self and Dance” brings out the gospel overtones of live-in-the-studio deep house.
At 13 minutes long, it’s the longest cut by a considerable margin, and its splotchy tape-collage aesthetic bears a resemblance to the murky depths of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. I’m not sure that’s entirely a coincidence. Like D’Angelo, Parrish is using the particulars of the black American experience to talk about America as a whole — to talk about struggle and power and failure and ambition, and the possibility of redemption. D’Angelo framed Black Messiah by saying that we could all be black messiahs, and I hear a similarly utopian drive in Parrish’s gorgeous, generous album. The opening song, in fact, is called “Drive,” and its repeated chant of “Where’s your drive?” underscores the inverse of Parrish’s utopian project: the doubt, and the shame, and the collective sense of powerlessness, that weighs us all down. Redemption is not a pipe dream; it’s something you work for. And on “Welcome Back” — a dubbed-out fugue for drum machine and walking bass in which Parrish acts out a routine traffic stop that escalates, echoing recent events in Ferguson and Cleveland and Staten Island — he shows us how criminally far we still have to go.