It’s been a stellar year for electronic and dance music once again, a year in which several new names have foisted themselves upon us, and in which several older ones have come back to show them how it’s really done. Here at Update towers we have tried to reflect the year in a variety of different styles, picking ten albums that could represent 2010 on their own terms, if asked to do so…
TEN ALBUMS OF 2010
1. Pantha Du Prince – Black Noise (Rough Trade)
Don’t be misled – the fact this is an album on Rough Trade doesn’t mean it’s full of guitars. In fact this is Hendrik Weber, making the sort of music Kompakt would climb mountains for. Funny we should say that, for his organic music keeps itself firmly in touch with basic rhythmic elements, given to us in the form of field recordings from the Swiss Alps. Ever heard techno with Alpine bells? It’s a wonderful experience, and all strangely heartwarming with its rich treble sounds.
2. Four Tet – There Is Love In You (Domino)
Another album to warm the cockles, this is Kieran Hebden’s first album release on his own in five years. Returning him to first principles, it sees him working with simple melodic loops, building and moulding them into hypnotic rounds. The shimmering, hot weather textures are added to beats that cross from dubstep to techno to softly brushed electronica, to make one of his most accessible albums in a long time – and also one of his best.
3. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach (EMI)
Even by previous standards, ‘Plastic Beach’ proved a massive step forward for Damon Albarn’s animated crew, their most daring piece of work to date. The guest slots are well chosen, and Mos Def, Mark E. Smith and Little Dragon perform brilliantly, but the man stealing the show is Bobby Womack, belting out the chorus to ‘Stylo’ with incredible intensity. The stunning variety and colour of the music is notable for its refusal to rule out cultural references, whether Arabic, American or British.
4. Daft Punk – TRON Legacy Soundtrack (EMI)
The worry was that Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack wouldn’t live up to its massive hype, but it looks like repeating the trick of 2005’s ‘Homework’, by being a real grower. Of course comparing the two albums is like chalk and cheese, but here there is total proof of the pair’s prowess as orchestrators, matching them up with 303s to stunning effect in the closing credits. As the soundtrack progresses the simmering pot of textures boils over spectacularly with ‘Derezzed’, a fantastically unhinged piece of dancefloor mayhem, before the atmospherics resume once more. A great piece of work.
5. Jaga Jazzist – One Armed Bandit (Ninja Tune)
An extraordinary listen on every level, being both highly melodic and rhythmically complex, yet from the first minute of the title track, the record’s success is never in doubt. Such is the confidence with which the ten piece band play, they sweep all before them with tuba, sax, flutes, guitars and much more thrown into the mix. ‘Toccata’ sports a dazzling array of loops, while the softer ‘Bananfluer Overalt’ hints at space rock, both parts of an ambitious album that gets better with every listen.
6. Reboot – Shunyata (Cadenza)
Frank Heinrich has an ear for incredibly subtle melodies and textures, all fuelled by deep rooted percussion. It’s this combination that makes ‘Shunyata’ a remarkable listen on headphones, with layers of rhythm and snippets of vocals, chords and atmospherics. Below ground is the bass, often working at such a low level that it can be barely heard on normal speakers, making its true presence felt when the woofers are brought in to play. The more you listen to this record the more it reveals, all fuelled by that deep, primal sense of rhythm.
7. Massive Attack – Heligoland (Virgin)
A new Massive Attack album is like a returning comet, because these boys don’t rush for anyone. In ‘Heligoland’ they provide further reminders of what it is that makes them great, with music staying true to the roots of ‘Blue Lines’, but taking in new sounds as well. Again the guests are well chosen, with turns from TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, Martina Topley Bird and Damon Albarn all working well, but once again it’s Horace Andy who really lights the flame. As with all albums by the band this is a record to grow with over time, that time usually being late night / early morning, once again confirming the Bristolians as one of our national treasures.
8. DJ Fresh – Kryptonite (Breakbeat KAOS)
Previous DJ Fresh singles have hinted he is on to something special – or even on something special – but they still don’t prepare for the thrilling impact of this album. Few styles give off as much adrenalin as drum ‘n’ bass does when used properly, and make no mistake, DJ Fresh knows how to use it. ‘Kryptonite’ has a huge release of energy, but it also knows when to pause a bit, throwing in some more moody dubstep and chunky funk. A vibrant album on the money the whole way through.
9. Luke Abbott – Holkham Drones (Border Community)
‘Holkham Drones’ refers to a beautiful stretch of coast in Luke Abbott’s home county, Norfolk. It also refers to the long, drawn out sounds he introduces to each track, giving a sense of quickly shifting pictures against a constant background. Abbott has an intriguing habit of applying his melodies in units of three, so when this is set against a straight beat operating in a traditional four to the floor sense, a strange kind of tension ensues. He also has an ear for vivid instrumental colourings, showing himself more than capable of casting a spell with the small melodic pockets he has at his disposal.
10. Ty – Special Kind Of Fool (BBE/Rapster)
Moving over to BBE’s Rapster imprint, Ty still has plenty to say that’s of relevance – and it is important he is not forgotten as one of the finest voices around in British hip hop. On ‘Little Star’ he raps about “though the climate is very weak, and very bleak, I’m gonna hold on to every week, and never sleep”. Much of the album inspires in this way, bringing in smoky soul, subtle funk and, in ‘I’m Leaving’, big rounded beats that score heavily. A lot of the time it feels like Ty is trying to put a smile on the face of UK rap. And you know what? He’s succeeded.
TEN COMPILATIONS OF 2010
1. Ninja Tune XX (Ninja Tune)
We’re at the stage in electronic music now where some of its finest record labels are reaching anniversaries that should be trumpeted loud and long from the rooftops. Such is the case with Ninja Tune, who decided not to sit on their considerable laurels and trundle out a ‘best of’, but plunder the archives and roll out the commissions for a box set of wholly new material. The decision paid off handsomely, whether you opted for the two double CD packages offered as Ninja XX, or if you went for the big mother, the massive box set of 6 CDs, a book, free downloads, posters and 12” cuts. Two decades old and still champing at the bit for new treasures, Ninja Tune really is a British institution.
2. We Are Proud Of Our Choices mixed by Ewan Pearson (Kompakt)
In another strong year for the DJ mixed compilation, Ewan Pearson came up trumps for Kompakt. ‘We Are Proud Of Our Choices’ is a lovingly crafted, 70 minute set of deep house with techno leanings and bags of personality. Pearson takes his time to build the tension, often centring on one note before releasing it with a pronounced shift to another. As it builds and the beats toughen, the sense of musicality remains incredibly strong – as does the urge to dance.
3. Elektronische Musik (Soul Jazz)
In all honesty Soul Jazz could have had three of their compilations in the top ten, so high has their quality threshold been this year. But instead of ‘Future Bass’ and ‘Riddim Box’, it’s ‘Elektronische Musik’ that gets the nod for its utterly essential look at the music of Neu!, Faust, Can and more. Krautrock abounds of course, but so does the beginnings of that style we know and love called ‘techno’. All served in a colourful sleeve.
4. Brownswood Bubblers 5 (Brownswood)
Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label has a whole load of artists here deserving of further investigation. Soul, funk and a bit of jazz are all in the melting pot, though it would be foolish to group all the artists in here together, as they’re too individual for that. Dam-Funk pulls a very unusual rhythm out the bag, ‘Searchin’ 4 Funk’s Future’. And you know what? Some of that future might well be on this here label. Brownswood is fast becoming one of the UK’s most vital sources of new soul and original beats – and it’s time more people knew.
5. Silke Wilhelm I – Audiovisual Coutoure Vol.1 by Kowesix (Conte De Conteur)
Chill out compilations cast the net wider for their source material these days, and Audiovisual Couture does the track selection bit so well it’s impossible to take it off the stereo. From sun blushed ambience to glacial songwriting, the two CDs here also explore darker rap, and, on the second, the glorious synth funk of Tensnake and Walter Jones. One of those compilations that takes you to new musical climbs.
6. City to City 3 mixed by DJ Deep (BBE)
The modest marketing for DJ Deep’s third city-hopping compilation says that it is ‘definitely not a classic house compilation’. That may be so, but it acts as if it is, turning over a brilliant selection of house music recorded with first principles. That means we get several vocals of the highly uplifting variety, a smattering of serene strings here and there, chunky beats, and the odd deep treasure. A sublime mix for hot summer nights, but it works well on cold winter ones too.
7. Bedrock 12 compiled by John Digweed (Bedrock)
John Digweed deserves plaudits for keeping his Bedrock label, now 12 years old would you believe, moving with the times. Bedrock 12 is unmixed, but is totally sourced by its curator from the original artists. It moves in the way a mixed comp would, starting out with chilled beats and moving to strong, muscle-built groovers from the likes of Quivver. A familiar formula, you might think – but Digweed still does it better than almost anybody, and all his tunes have something extra to offer.
8. Live & Direct mixed by MYNC, Harry ‘Choo Choo’ Romero and Jose Nunez (Cr2)
Upfront house from something of a dream team here! Something about the driving rhythms, the upbeat bass lines and the big, spacey keyboards screams party on CD1, but as things get faster on CD2, the roof lifts off. Only in the Romero/Nunez remix of Aly-Us’ ‘Follow Me’ does the pace let up – but this proves to be a cunning decoy when the drums come back. The third, unmixed CD is merely the clincher – the last leg of a set of pumped up house that is a pure release from start to finish.
9. Cafe Mambo mixed by Alex Wolfenden (Cr2)
Cr2 again – taking this familiar staple on and delivering a warm selection of house and Balearica. Much of this is due to the tune selection and pacing of Alex Wolfenden, who mixes first a CD of down tempo sunshine music, then a quicker set of more driven material. The second set has some nice flashes of cosmic disco, deep house and tougher beats as the mix reaches its climax, the likes of Tensnake turning in remixes to kill for.
10. Dessous’ Best Kept Secrets 2 (Dessous)
The jewel in the crown here is the cool bonus mix from Dessous label head Steve Bug, who gets together some seriously deep and classy tracks to create a full bodied house mix. CD1 is also very fine though, introducing quality deep stuff from David Durango, Andrade and Rene Breitbath, just to show what rude health the label is in. Deep house with a frisson of attitude, keeping it very much alive.