No question about it, U.K. electronic music had a spectacular year. But it’s also been fiendishly difficult to sum up in bold headlines. Even in a music world filled with splinter factions and subsets, 2011 was dizzying: It was a year of outliers, misfits and individualists exploring the turbulent currents stirred up in the wake of dubstep’s continued push into the mainstream. It was the year of newer influences like the internationalism of moombahton or Chicago’s frenetic and futuristic footworking rhythms. Vaguer-than-usual sub-genre tags like “future garage” and post-dubstep” diagnosed the problem: old labels just didn’t cut it anymore amid the Technicolor explosion of expressive sound, in which old oppositions like hi/lo-fi and future/retro broke down entirely. Everything was up for grabs, and it was this anarchic spirit that made the year so explosively vital.
If there was one release that summed up all of this, it was King Midas Sound’s Without You collection on Hyperdub. The Hyperdub label, of course, has long represented strength in diversity — and continued this year with a sterling series of dancefloor singles and the most consistent release yet from bossman Kode 9 in his brooding yet invigorating Black Sun album. Without You, however, was something else entirely: bringing together artists to remix and re-voice the doomed lovers’ rock tracks from KMS’s Waiting for You album, it drew together deep techno (Deep Chord presents Echospace), U.K. bass (Cooly G, Kode 9, Mala), terrifying industrial hip-hop (Ras G), lo-fi avant-gardists (Hype Williams, Nite Jewel), a veteran of intellectual 1980s pop-soul (Green Gartside of Scritti Politti) and much more. But crucially, amidst all this variety, a unified voice and emotional core emerged; even at an hour long with some 30-odd contributors, it’s a proper album and revealed exactly how potent were the curatorial powers of KMS’s Kevin Martin. If there’s anyone with the vision and breadth of taste to forge coherence from today’s landscape, it’s Martin.
A smattering of artist albums from different parts of the U.K. showed another intriguing path through the data stream. Four in particular perfectly illustrated how different ways of blending past and present could create distinct visions of the future: Glasgow’s Rustie gave us Glass Swords; from Bristol via Berlin came Kuedo’s Severant; Damu’s Unity represented Manchester, and Silkie’s City Limits Vol. 2 encapsulated pure London underground sound. There were major common factors to these four: All emerged from the soundsystem traditions of 21st-century grime and dubstep, all had razor-edged production, and all led with vivid, melodic lead synthesizer parts, but each created something entirely new from these elements. As with the KMS collection, they showed a powerful and focused mind taming the chaos and imposing a focused vision.
Rustie blasted out maniacal, day-glo rave music with crunk aggression, shameless pop fizz and wild riffs; everything amped up and maxed out, yet somehow just bearable because it was created with such palpable love for its source material and for the raving experience. Kuedo’s rhythms were just as unsettled and unsettling, but formed a framework for something much sparser and darker. Directly referencing early-Neptunes hip hop and Blade Runner, it suggested replicants shipping bricks of coke through shadowy sci fi noir cities. Damu tied everything together with a steady house pulse, and — as the title Unity suggests — a feeling of warmth and togetherness, making a richly-layered album that’s both thoughtful and hedonistic. Silkie further perfected his blend of the most heavyweight dubstep with rich synthetic soul music, creating an album that captured the thrills and dangers of night time London and which suggests a bright future for the producer.
Elsewhere, it was not individuals but collectives that found ballast among the turbulence. Following in the wake of Hyperdub, other labels that had been marginalised by the mainstreaming of dubstep moved towards the centre of things — Hessle Audio (run by Pangaea, Ben UFO and Pearson Sound aka Ramadanman) and Scuba’s Hotflush Recordings being prime examples, both dropping major compilations in 2011 (116 & Rising and Back & 4th respectively) which demonstrated how each label had its own very particular take on the confused zone between techno, dubstep, house and garage.
Likewise, Bristol’s Punch Drunk and Tectonic Recordings; Numbers and LuckyMe from Scotland; Swamp81, Night Slugs, Deep Medi Muzik and NonPlus from London; Hoya:Hoya from Manchester; the brilliant Anglo-Japanese label Diskotopia; the ever-reliable Planet Mu. Often overlapping in style and personnel, nonetheless each consolidated their position, defining a sound that wasn’t about any one genre or tempo, but was recognisably of that label’s style. We could expand endlessly on the sound and individual releases of each label, but the principle was the same — in 2011, imprints settled into their identities, each providing a reliable entry point into the swirling zones between genres.
One particularly fascinating upshot of this reassertion of the label as guiding hand is that quite a few venerable leftfield labels have seen themselves radically invigorated and in love with electronic sound once again. Warp Records is the absolute case in point, particularly thanks to Rustie’s aforementioned Glass Swords, and another contender for album of the year, 93 Million Miles by the supergroup of Mark Pritchard and Steve Spacek, a.k.a. Africa Hitech. Ninja Tune also had one of their best years in a long while: their recent signings Raffertie, Slugabed, Martyn, Starkey, FaltyDL and Emika each embodied the new diversity in an entirely unique way, pointing towards an entirely new “Ninja sound.”
So 2011, if it was about anything, was about patterns emerging from chaos. It was about intelligent curators and single-minded creators taking from across styles and generations — not willy-nilly, but with a connoisseur’s ear for what would work together — and weaving together unique new hybrids. It was about labels which had emerged from the last decade’s club scenes spreading out and bedding in and becoming reference points in themselves. (And labels that had emerged a decade before learning from them.) Prophets of doom have long suggested that the digital age will mean homogenisation and the dissolution of identity as locality and genre are dissolved into the international flow of data, but these glimmers and glints of brilliance among the blizzard of information have shown that this needn’t be the case. There’s no knowing which, if any, of these poles of stability will prove to last the course, but each and every one of them provides a beacon of hope for 2012.