2011: Music’s Most Electronic Year Yet

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.

Innergaze – “Shadow Disco” (100% SILK) by Innergaze

“Protrusion” by Container by spectrumspools

Weird Pop, Skillrex, Maximalism, Hipster House, and Occupy Noises

The whole discussion on this stuff was spawned in the text of Pitchfork-sponsored blog depository Altered Zones, which unexpectedly closed its doors late in the year. If anything, the death of Altered Zones places a kind a bookend on this era, the Altered Zones era, even if its founders promise a return next year. Ironically, he site’s signature chillwave/hypnagogic pop/leftfield basement demo style was initially spawned by a kind of out-of-time/ahistorical mentality. That it achieved a historical relevance out of posing this predicament gives credence to its potency as a 21st century art project.

Any retrospective of the year would be incomplete without a mention of Simon Reynolds’s Retromania, which posits that our current era is suffering from both a dearth and an abundance of history (the concept of musical evolution as a history of subcultures “getting it wrong” is Reynolds’s too, as is the term “Maximalism”). This was exactly what the Altered Zones sonic sounded like — an unprecedented music constructed out of a series of incongruent precedents.

The Altered Zones spillover resulted in all manner of eccentric electronic pop with unusual contours and emphases by not only Drake and The Weeknd, but also artists who stood out on their own like Zomby, Grimes, Ford & Lopatin, James Blake, Autre Ne Veut, D’Eon, or the unexpectedly slick Destroyer, each of whom produced records with no real parallels in 2011 or any other year. This is not to discredit good old synthpop, of which Junior Boys, Cut Copy, and Metronomy produced excelsior renditions in 2011. Then, there’s the case of M83, deciding once and for all that being ELO is not the worst thing in the world, then aiming ridiculously high with a double album supposed to represent all teenage lovelorn drama everywhere or something, and amazingly enough hitting the mark on a couple of tunes.

Looking backwards, there was plenty to celebrate on the reissue front. We got a good history lessons in the pioneering work by the progenitors of bleep (Sweet Exorcist’s Retroactivity), 2nd Wave Detroit (Drexciya’s Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller), IDM (the Autechre EPs), house (Virgo Four’s previously unreleased trove Resurrection), and minimalism (Plastikman’s entire Arkives). Excursions even further back turned up perhaps even more interesting results. Side projects that may have fell to the margins were given new vitality by the reissue treatment like the Editions Mego albums of Wire’s Bruce Gilbert, Heaven 17 member Martyn Ware’s brazen and experimental takes as British Electric Foundation (B.E.F.), and sometime Ash Ra Tempel member Harold Grosskopf’s lost gem Synthesist, which came packaged with a batch of remixes nearly as juicy as the album itself.

Bruce Glibert – This Way With The Shivering Man (album preview) by experimedia

Meanwhile, Industrial continued to win back a tarnished reputation. Cabaret Voltaire rereleased the lost soundtrack to the forgotten film Johnny Yesno and the four major albums of the Throbbing Gristle oeuvre (plus Greatest Hits) were rereleased in a stunning remaster that added not only previously unheard depths but loads of quality bonus material from the death factory vaults. At the same time, Richard H Kirk and Chris Carter, each from the respective aforementioned bands, accepted invitations to remix new material by postpunk and industrial tinged acts like Perc, Tropic of Cancer, and Black Dog, proving that neither of them find it sufficient to live off their legacies alone.

The grim hues of the Cabs and TG had long served as dressing for the Downwards Records set, who have since diluted into the more austere and techno-minded Sandwell District crew. To these ears, there was something uniquely prescient about this codified ghost labor, particularly when it struck out in nasty snarls as on Perc’s Wicker and Steel. The gloom of Blackest Ever Black, the cold world atmospherics of CLR, and the functionalist crunch of Stroboscopic Artefacts acted out the noises of a world on the brink, crushed by the weight of capitalism’s inequities and ready to use the tools of postmodernism to deconstruct its many deconstructions.

Of course, this vantage wasn’t only cause for despair. Despite the unhealthy prognosis of a world plagued by the phone hacking scandal, London riots, the shootings in Norway, near-nuclear meltdown in Japan, every form of despair in Africa, bankrupt First World governments, austerity, and child rape cover-ups in prominent college sports franchises, there was still cause for hope in 2011. The world is now absent Muammar Gadaffi, Osama Bin Laden, and Kim Jong Il, and people’s movements sprouted in the form of the Arab Spring, the British student movement, and the US Occupy protests. Though riddled with uncertainty, the sheer lack of determinism gave the road ahead a glimmer of hope.

Just as well, music’s complete dissipation carries with it the same degree of precarity, but those forging new paths offer suggestions on how to make it through this dark time. Once again, electronic and plugged-in music is at the vanguard, offering a separate course for those not content to bask in static plaudits and stale sycophancy. In music and in culture-at-large, we might “get it wrong” in our path to absolution, but might that be just what we need?