All my conversations with electronic-music heads have had a common theme recently: Everyone agrees that there was little consensus in dance music this year. It’s been that way for a while, really. Every year, there are more scenes running in parallel, fewer standout anthems that everybody can agree on. But this year, even dance music’s broad, diffuse overground felt scattered. Plenty of reliable figures kept doing what they do best—Four Tet and the Caribou side project Daphni turned out well-regarded albums, for instance—but aside, perhaps, from Bicep, there were few emergent artists with wide crossover appeal.
The good news, though, is that there were plenty of pockets of brilliance across the underground, both in terms of micro-scenes and individual artists boldly blazing their own paths. In terms of the former, the most exciting was a nameless corner of the UK bass spectrum, largely headquartered in Bristol, encompassing labels like Hemlock, Hessle Audio, Timedance, Livity Sound, and Whities. Even here, there’s no single rhythmic signature or sonic feature that unites them all, the way there is with dubstep or techno. Instead, it’s a shared predilection for highly abstracted sound design, deliriously drawn-out patterns, and twisted arrangements that turn on a dime. Minor Science’s shuddering, jewel-toned “Volumes,” Mosca’s wild, whip-cracking Latin-dub raver “Peyote Stitch,” and Batu’s feverishly repetitive “Murmur” were all standouts here, alongside stellar tracks from Lanark Artefax, Airhead, Ploy, Hodge, Parris, and the artist known simply as Joe.
If that’s the “scenius” end of things, the genius end was just as fruitful. Confidently sailing far beyond the known limits of Chicago footwork, Jlin continued to melt minds with her own brand of dazzlingly polyrhythmic, ultra-vivid, triplet-riddled club tracks. Laurel Halo, never one to repeat herself two records in a row, hit upon the strangest, squishiest sounds she’s conjured yet—an enveloping amalgam of funk, affectless electro-pop, and musique concrete. Errorsmith, designer of Native Instruments’ popular software synth Razor, put his creation through its paces on a head-spinningly intricate album of synthesized percussion and needling sound design that, despite its wanton experimentalism, is also one of the most giddily enjoyable records of the year. And as far as singularity of vision goes, few could touch Fever Ray, who returned from a eight-year absence with the brilliant, challenging, sometimes sexy and sometimes confounding Plunge. “IDK About You,” highlighted here, was one of its wiliest curveballs: a 160-BPM co-production with the young Portuguese batida producer Nídia Minaj (also included here with her own “Underground”) that put an unprecedentedly breathless spin on Karin Dreijer’s creepy, out-of-body pop.
The link between electronic music and pop is practically as old as electronic music itself, but this year there were still artists who made the relationship feel fresh. The Korean-American singer/producer yaeji turned out a heady, low-lit fusion of house, ambient, and trap music. Sophia Kennedy, an American living in Hamburg, brought her experience writing music for the theater to an odd and deeply infectious album for DJ Koze’s Pampa label. And even TORRES, best known as an indie rocker, broke new ground on “To Be Given a Body,” the absorbing final track from her album Three Futures: It’s a captivating fusion of storytelling and wispy-yet-weighty ambient production, and I couldn’t stop listening to it this year, often cueing it up multiple times in a row. It’s an outlier on this list, but it also feels like a jumping-off point. Hopefully, 2018 will bring more songs like it—fresh energy and fresh ideas from artists way out on the margins of a deeply decentered genre.