Since writing 2010’s 2Q Report on overrated tracks I’ve spent some time pondering what makes something overrated. In years prior LWE has fingered DJs as the culprits behind overrated tracks, and with good reason: jocks are the ones playing and charting the tunes. But that overlooks two important parts of the equation — audiences and critics. If it feels wrong to blame club-goers for the music they have no explicit role in picking, think again. Dancers vote with their feet, choosing to reward or punish a DJ’s selections with their presence on the dancefloor or decision to leave it. The experience of clearing the floor a few times is often enough to condition many DJs to be people-pleasers to some extent. And while there is no telling what exactly will keep a particular crowd dancing beyond educated guesses, relying on the facile and the familiar is often a safer bet than trying to “educate” with recent Discogs finds. Functional or gimmicky records are best suited at simply keeping the party going, and many of their defenders are quick to point this out. I’d argue this is not a worthwhile barometer because it prizes continuity over quality, and that’s hardly a convincing reason for whether a track is noteworthy.
The other overlooked variable is critical reaction. Even at a time where anyone with a social networking profile becomes an arbiter of taste for their friends, the impact of educated ears guiding their readers through the never-abating flow of new releases shouldn’t be understated. But for all our claims of being unbiased, critics occasionally fall prey to our desires to be read and appreciated just as artists and DJs do.The Internet helps facilitate a kind of hive-mind state where critics line up to join their peers in praising the latest buzz record/artist rather than be seen as missing out. When some publications dare to publish negative reviews their staff endure verbal abuse in the comments section over differing opinions. It all adds up to an environment where grade inflation seems likely. I took these two additional considerations into account while deciding on five records from the first half of 2011 afforded undue levels of credit and kudos.
Clockwork, “It’s You Again” [Hot Creations]
When it comes to trends in dance music, the pendulum tends to swing hard no matter which direction it’s heading. Over the last six months that’s meant a deluge of house tracks with full on vocals, not just the snippets that dotted 2010’s output. Given their tendency towards being male dominated and/or featuring pitch- and gender-bending effects (of the sort pioneered by The Knife and Fever Ray), you could attribute their popularity to the success of tracks like Art Department’s “Without You.” Whatever their inspiration, their prevalence has drawn out how easy it is to do crap vocals for the sake of fitting the fad. Perhaps the worst of the bunch is Clockwork’s “It’s You Again,” a track that boils down Art Department’s underwhelming formula to its least interesting elements: soupy, nearly incoherent vocals, rote house percussion and a synth progression so slight it’s mostly a placeholder. Disappointingly if unsurprisingly, this has made it quite the hit. But rather than dismiss the trend out of hand, it’s worth noting that some producers are succeeding at making compelling music with similar traits, some of which are listed below. Instead of praising and playing the music of low-rent bandwagon hoppers like Clockwork, we should support those who find interesting corners to explore inside of trends.
Try instead: Tale of Us, “Dark Song”; Benoit & Sergio, “Walk & Talk”; Lucky Paul ft. Milosh, “Thought We Were Alone” (Gadi Mizrahi & Eli Gold Remix)
Jamie xx, “Far Nearer” [Numbers]
Almost as awkward as watching the British press and public hyperventilate themselves into believing The xx were generational heroes has been the rush to crown Jamie “xx” Smith the next super producer. This was particularly frustrating for those not inclined to buy into the first part of his ascendance, because it seemed he was receiving these overblown credentials based on potential rather than evidence. If anything “Far Nearer,” his first solo single, emphasized just how far his boosters had overshot: a cloying mixture of steel drums, pitchbent vocals and tapped-out drums that lingered for ages in legendary dubplate stasis, out of reach from reviewers while remaining an object of obsession. It was a “cool dubstep tune” for people who didn’t like dubstep. It was held up as exemplary by press outlets with only token coverage of the genre it supposedly belonged to, never mind that it couldn’t hold a candle to its apparent peers. But it’s just so much easier to praise the artist you’ve already built up than to wade into a confusing and tangled field of sounds to find something truly excellent. Smith is not at fault for making music he believed in, even if it’s a poor example of all the creativity flowing from the UK. It’s the reactive and reductive press that shoulders the blame for putting “Far Nearer” and its creator on such a high pedestal that living up to expectations was practically impossible.
Try instead: Deadboy, “Ain’t Gonna Lie”; Andy Stott, “New Ground”; Machinedrum, “Sacred Frequency”
Efdemin, “There Will Be Singing” (DJ Koze Remix) [Dial]
The reasons for buying into DJ Koze’s particular brand of musical lunacy are many, but they all add up to one simple fact: more often than not his zany ideas give birth to beautiful, innovative sounds. But it is possible to place too much faith in the man’s abilities, as has been the case with his remix of Efdemin’s “There Will Be Singing.” On paper, giving this album highlight to Koze seemed like an inspired and even obvious choice; the only question that remained was what hidden beauties its remixer would reveal. The reality is rather sobering, starting with a slurred intro declaring Efdemin a homosexual for no particular reason. From there Koze shows little interest in developing the track beyond the taut chords from the original’s latter half, giving them just enough juice to provide a techno edge but not much else. Add vocal narration that wonders why people value art and snares that reveal themselves to be dog barks and you’ve got the entire remix. It’s the sound of a oddball genius resting on his askew laurels, banking on any weirdness being good weirdness. It’s also the kind of track that would’ve been roundly ignored without Koze’s name on it. In terms of popularity his bet has paid off: so far it’s the second most charted track of 2011 according to RA’s calculations, suggesting that DJs put great store in his bland reduction of a great track and audiences are egging them on in kind. Anyone who appreciates DJ Koze knows he’s capable of much much more, which is why settling for this tossed-off remix is a stain on all those involved.
Try instead: Heiko Voss, “I Think About You” (DJ Koze Mix); Matias Aguayo, “Minimal” (DJ Koze Remix); Sascha Funke, “Mango Cookie” (DJ Koze’s Pink Moon Rmx)
Nicolas Jaar, Space Is Only Noise [Circus Company]
Born in Chile to a somewhat famous father, precocious and well educated, Nicolas Jaar is (to put it crudely) something out of a features editor’s wet dream. Add a wonky production style that doesn’t fit neatly into current dance music narratives and the rising star piece begins to write itself. That’s not to say Jaar didn’t earn the attention he’s received, having amassed a respectable discography with popular labels since starting out in 2008. But when he released his debut album, Space Is Only Noise, earlier this year, it seemed like the occasion critics were waiting for to spill forth with praise. Their impulse was understandable to an extent: the young artist used his firm grasp of production and sound design to render an unusual take on beat music. Listening to the album, however, it feels like reviewers were rushing to congratulate Jaar for taking chances rather than making something actually spectacular. Tracks like “Too Many Kids Finding Rain In the Dust” and “Problems With The Sun” don’t sound like much else but aren’t much to listen to either. His drum patterning is solidly average, leaving many of his songs (such as “I Got A Woman,” “Specters of the Future” and “Variations”) in league with mediocre trip-hop that wasn’t so hot the first time around. Other moments (“Sunflower,” “Almost Fell” and “Trace”) come off like the noodling of a college-aged stoner and add little to his stronger work. Space Is Only Noise too often feels like student work, an album that hints at a unique, compelling perspective between half-baked, scatter shot compositions. It makes clear that Jaar is a talented guy who could probably make a staggering album at some point; but despite multiple assurances to the contrary, his debut LP is just not that.
Try instead: John Roberts, Glass Eights; The Books, The Lemon Of Pink; Prefuse 73, One Word Extinguisher
Oliver $, “Doin’ Ya Thang” [Play It Down]
It’s almost a shame to spend still more time on this prime example of lazy songwriting. Still, it’s hard to overlook a track that’s been overrated by critics, DJs, and audiences alike. The truth is, dance music fans of all stripes are in love with Moodymann and will even resort to poorly constructed facsimiles to get our fix. Oliver’s cleverness was only in realizing and harnessing this fact even more bluntly than those who attempted it before him. Because without the minute-length samples of another DJ at work it’s a plain disco beat with crowd noise and filters; with them, it allows jocks to turn the show over to a bigger, more dynamic DJ presence that audiences have been lapping up for years. One can only hope this is the moment when samples of Moodymann performances and quotes jump the shark and people instead demand that the living legend be brought to their town. I fear my hopes will be dashed instead.
Try instead: Moodymann, all; Green Velvet, “Flash”; Efdemin, “Just A Track”