Electronic music is in a funny place right now. It’s as heterogeneous as it’s ever been—a global patchwork of sounds divided by aesthetic, ideology, geography, and even tempo. (See Copenhagen’s so-called “fast techno” scene, whose breakneck energy was best represented by Kulør 001, the inaugural compilation from Courtesy’s Kulør label.) After a long, somewhat uncomfortable stretch in the spotlight, for the better part of the decade, electronic music has largely faded from mainstream view—when was the last time you heard anything about “EDM”? But in that absence of anything resembling a crossover consensus, all manner of ideas have managed to bubble up.
Take Slikback. A year ago, nobody in the Northern Hemisphere had heard of the Kenyan producer. Precious few in the Southern, for that matter; he’s only been making music since 2016 or so. But he ended up earning rave reviews for the three sets he played at Kampala, Uganda’s Nyege Nyege Festival, Eastern Africa’s hub for cutting-edge dance music, and a month or so later, his slot at Krakow’s Unsound turned into another hat trick. The very fact that we can speak of a kind of festival network connecting audiences in Eastern Africa and Eastern Europe shows how the landscape has changed in recent years, with artists like Slikback and his sui generis bass music changing the way we think about global undergrounds. His late-2018 remix for Italy’s dancehall-inspired STILL, part of Berlin’s restless PAN crew, further confirmed the Kenyan producer’s arrival.
Speaking of bass music, that amorphous category remained the locus of much of electronic music’s vanguard energy, whether that meant Jlin’s continuing mutations in post-footwork, Demdike Stare’s gravelly breakbeat workouts, or the broken rhythms of artists like Bruce, SMX, Pangaea, Parris, and Upsammy. (Undisputed bass anthem of the year: Peder Mannerfelt and Sissel Wincent’s “Sissel & Bass.”) The term “bass music” barely even means anything anymore, at least not anything terribly specific; mainly it just signifies a heavy low end and a certain degree of lurch. But in an era when techno gets drawn ever more narrowly, and house music is often an exercise in retro fealty, the radical openness of bass music was a boon.
That’s not to say house and techno didn’t produce great music, even if they rarely sounded essentially new. Even dance music’s nostalgia couldn’t settle on a single reference point, ranging from Lone’s early-’90s ambient-techno reveries to Helena Hauff’s EBM brutalism to the early-’00s minimal revivalism of Huerco S.’ Loidis project. House originator Mr. Fingers put out an album that proved why the genre remains dance music’s gold standard; Octo Octa and Eris Drew honed in on the kinds of ecstatic moods and grooves that feel simply timeless.
And while most of the most productive action remained rooted in the underground, that’s not to say that pop crossover was impossible. SOPHIE made one of the year’s most radical record by linking pop pleasures to the most in-your-face experimentalism. Marie Davidson found a wealth of new fans by infusing spiky acid-house revivalism with sly, feminist spoken-word vocals. And Peggy Gou and DJ Koze yielded two of the year’s most universal hits—the kind of tunes that will be filling dancefloors from now ‘til kingdom come—by zeroing in on perfect hooks and a lightness of spirit that was more than welcome in a year as heavy as this one. In a year where it became harder and harder to agree on just about anything, pretty much everyone could find solace in tunes like “It Makes You Forget (Itgehane)” and “Pick Up.”