Was 2011 the most electronic year for music on record? Even the air in 2011 was electric, fizzing and crackling with excitement. Yet, one look at all the superlative charts from 2011 w and you’d barely even notice-Fucked Up, Bon Iver, Yuck, Fleet Foxes, Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Adele, et al. Where were the charges and volts that made 2011 such an unimpeachably plugged-in year?
The radio dial (possibly a vestigial organ of music at this point, sure) was (g)littered in rave-pop and silicon(e) soul. At worst, it was a retread of the ‘90s trance crossover and ‘80s Eno-lite Miami Vice R&B. At best, the results transcended their debts and tithes to the past, forging a sound that was uniquely now.
Arpeggios, 808s, 303s, and synth sax were back from the dead in the year of our lord synth lord 2011. The “dirty bits” of grime and dubstep were piecemeal on chart toppers like Black Eyed Peas’s “The Time”, Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling”, or Rihanna’s “We Found Love”. Drake got the eccentric and ambient “Marvin’s Room” on the radio, collaborated with SBTRKT, and sampled Jamie XX’s remix of Gil Scot Heron.
Meanwhile, Drake’s depraved protégé The Weeknd took the experimentation even further with ethereal synths and pitch bent samples that sounded like they’d be at home on Rinse FM (“What You Need”) or on an Altered Zones post (“The Morning”). He even had a song that paid tribute to the Cocteau Twins (“Heaven or Las Vegas”), previously a never-knew-there-was-a-fly zone for hip-hop and R&B. Which brings us to Clams Casino, a producer who shared The Weeknd’s 4AD 2K aesthetic and found his echo dream patches of cooing choirs underwriting tracks by buzzed-about rappers like Mac Miller, Main Attraktionz, A$AP Rocky and Lil B, all the while being mini-epics in and off themselves.
Finally, here was pop music taking the sounds of the underground and gloriously “getting it wrong” when translating these methods to their chosen form (in this case, reviled chart pop). Even the popstars who weren’t looking to paint the vanguard crassly commercial or striving to make art out of digital trash made electro and rave leaning swag like Britney’s “Till the World Ends” or Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” sound thicker and juicier than standard bubblegum. And observe how easy it is to beat match Mosca’s politely reverent Todd Edwards era UKG pirate anthem “Bax” with Dev’s sensual yet utterly disaffected “In the Dark” if you just speed up the latter a bit. Even Chris Brown became tolerable when he invited Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes to drop verses over a minimalist batch of shortwave radiophonic synth squiggles for “Look at Me Now”.
This was the year that a 65-year-old David Lynch decided to record a mostly rockabilly album and pick the vocoded synthpop track as its lead single (“Good Day Today”). That song’s subsequent remixers, dance music legends Underworld, were subsequently commissioned to write music for the 2012 London Olympics. Speaking of soundtracking, The Chemical Brothers scored Hanna, Trent Reznor did The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Basement Jaxx collaborated with Stephen Price for Attack the Block, and Drive achieved approximately half of its icy cool by sounding like an Italians Do It Better mixtape.
While the old electronic guard was being enshrined, a new one was being born. “Dubstep” finally passed over into the popular lexicon in 2011, though the term has been applied so liberally by clueless journalists that it seems to be a stand in for just about any brand of music with a vaguely electronic bent. No doubt the exposés and the panics will soon follow. Both Korn and Justin Bieber have promised us dubstep albums for 2012, and doubtless they won’t be the only artists to crown themselves the new heroes in a halfstep.
Yet, the underground seemed unperturbed by all of this. In fact, commemorative compilations from Hotflush and Hessle Audio seemed to signal the museumification of the scene that was once dubstep. With a few notable exceptions, the dubstep artists of yore had moved on into the wild genre-hopping ether opened up the previous year by the neon-hued house of the Night Slugs/Numbers/ LuckyMe axis (whose superstars like Jacques Greene, Deadboy, and Julio Bashmore ruled 2011’s nightlife). Former steppas like Zomby, Martyn, Pinch & Shackleton, Rustie, and Vex’d’s Kuedo and Roly Porter achieved best results by going in decidedly undubstep routes for their 2011 efforts.
So, where did the new attention come from? It’s wasn’t from Magnetic Man or Katy B, whose 2010 UK albums saw late arrival in the US, nor even from Burial, whose long-awaited return was a bit small scale, even though it involved a collaboration with Thom Yorke and Four Tet. No, dubstep hordes amassed under the banner of one Sonny Moore a.ka. Skillrex, a 23-year-old L.A. artist with thick black-rimmed glasses and meme-spawning haircut that he’ll surely regret in ten years who specializes in a dense layering of wobble, chiptune, and chipmunk effects.
Characterized by the juxtaposition of sometimes stately melodies with filthy atonalities and rapid-fire pastiche, Skillrex tunes are designed with specific club effects in mind, but also inspire folks to blast it out of their windows the way they used to blare gangster rap. His emphasis on loud dynamic thrusts also made his music an agent for headbanging, inviting a sweaty bastion of fratboys and former metalheads into the club scene’s insular walls. An outsider and an instant success, Skillrex was easily the most hated man in electronic music in 2011, but was he unworthy of the praise or yet another example of a barbarian at the gate taking a tired old form and “getting it wrong”?
Yet, Skillrex’s proggish penchant for overstuffing his tracks with an album’s worth of tricks and tools corresponds with a larger trend in music toward what has recently been dubbed “Maximalism”. In a sonic sea clotted with too many choices, Maximalism was one way of screaming for attention. Coagulation threatened to burst blood vessels across scenes, with the glut ranging from the post-dubstep blitz of Rustie’s Glass Swords to the hypnagogic extravagance of Patten or James Ferraro, on down to the post-everything ersatz spiritual jazz/hip-hop of FlyLo’s Brainfeeder crew (Thundercat, matthewdavid, Strangeloop, et al.). At a time when everything was accessible all at once, musicians responded to this new landscape by both commenting on and mimicking the roving cultural detritus.
If there was a new movement this year on par with last year’s Witch House (which continued with quality but lower-visibility releases by Balam Acab and Holy Other), it was the (no doubt pejoratively) named Hipster House, a sound based largely around Amanda Brown’s 100% Silk imprint of Not Not Fun (whereas Witch House had been and remains the propriety of Tri Angle). The sound largely exported the crude DIY analogue gear of early house/late disco/primitive techno and combined it with the digital effects and textural temperaments of the 25 years that followed.
While the entire genre can’t be said to be bulletproof (what burgeoning scene can?), there was a rash of impressive releases by the likes of Maria Minerva, Octa Octa, Ital, Laurel Halo, Stay+, and Innergaze worth raising one hands in the sky over. One could even argue that the delightfully foggy and clunky post-noise beat-based music by the likes of Vatican Shadow (Prurient’s Dominic Fernow) and Container also fall into this category. This too was yet another example of an outsider scene that was taking something with established rules (house music) and “getting it wrong” by trying too hard.