Graphic by Mark Hofmann
2011 will not be remembered as a particularly good year for the world. Between a myriad of horrifying natural disasters, the uncertain outcome of the Arab Spring, political gridlock in the U.S., the EU’s seemingly unraveling state, austerity protests, and a generally ugly economic period, the events of this year have not offered much to smile about. But for dance music fans, 2011 was a year rich with exciting music coming out of house, techno, bass music, and everywhere between and around. While it might not be remembered as the most progressive of years — retro and recently unearthed seemed to be the most popular aesthetic themes — enthusiasts will be able to look back at their 2011 finds and say with certainty that many will still be worth their weight in the years to come. As in past years, LWE’s reviewing staff has devoted a great deal effort combing through the year’s releases to bring out our top 30 favorite tracks of 2011. Your mileage may vary and many great tracks were left out, but for us these selections defined our 2011 listening experiences. Our individual staff lists will be published this Friday.
2011 was a lean year for René Pawlowitz releases, especially after his fattened 2010 release schedule. In fact, if you put aside his remixes of 2562 and Radiohead, it all came down to one record released in 2011′s waning months — the fifth installment in the Equalized series. Luckily for us, it was a complete reversal from the disappointingly one-note #004 that more than made up for a year’s worth of near silence. Firing up what sound like the same synthesizers that made the first three Equalized singles must-owns, Pawlowitz turned each up to 162 to build one of the year’s most massive tunes. The skanking progression that opens “Equalized#005-B” merely hints at the approaching fury, as a phalanx of similar progressions begin to gallop alongside their leader. The track only grows beefier and more aggressive (in spite of the lighthearted tambourine percussion) until it’s difficult to imagine any more space left in the room for more synths — and that’s when the euphoric melodies wash over everything. Thanks to its late-November release it might take critics and record buyers a few more months to fully absorb this record’s genius, but its impact was already so strongly felt that we at LWE just had to make room for it among 2011′s best. (Anton Kipfel)
Last year, Oskar Offermann and Moomin’s “Hardmood” just sneaked into LWE’s top 25 list. “Hideaway,” actually released the same year, similarly showed the power of bold, carefully crafted percussion, favoring solid basics over audaciousness. This was a sentiment reinforced by its mostly regressive palette. The 12″ itself — the tenth on Dial’s prestigious sub-label – actually offered three nuanced versions. It was this, however –the wisely-chosen A-side – which appeared the most confident with its essentials and consequently, caused the biggest splash. I first encountered it through Oliver Hafenbauer, Live At Robert Johnson’s A&R guy. When I searched frantically for it the next morning, there was no uncertainty as to whether I’d stumbled onto the same tune. Its friendly, warbling synth program and shrugging hats were instantly recognizable. And isn’t that about the best one can hope for with a track of such modest ambition?
28. Tin Man, “Nonneo” (Donato Dozzy Remix)
[Absurd Recordings] (buy)
Imagine you heard Tin Man’s “Nonneo” on Earth in 2011. (If you followed dance music this year, then this probably isn’t a difficult scenario for you to conjure.) Now imagine that, immediately upon finishing the track, you’re hustled into a spacecraft and launched toward some distant black hole. Your ship circumscribes the event horizon for awhile, where gravity is strong enough to warp time, and then you blast off back toward your home planet, thousands of years having effortlessly passed. After being extracted from your ship by fusion-powered robots, you’re transferred to a holding pen curiously outfitted with some reconstituted artifacts of 20th-century electronic music production (they got the Roland plates right and everything), and a perfectly polite but obviously synthesized voice asks if you might recreate that tune you heard moments before your adventure began. My guess is you’d produce something like Donato Dozzy’s masterful remix, wherein the power of Tin Man’s original is amplified despite so many of its sounds getting lost in the ether. Of course, having the year’s best bass line at your disposal makes losing the rest of your stems somewhere between Neptune and Uranus a rather tasty prospect.
27. Protect-U, “World Music”
[Future Times] (buy)
When the Protect-U duo of Aaron Leitko and Mike Petillo began, they didn’t set out to make easily quantifiable music. And with “World Music” from their second release for Future Times, Protect-U continued to color outside the lines. “World Music” sends us sprawling through a sonic tableau of synth eddies, tapping into how expansive techno can be in the right hands. Starting off with staccato drum programming and white noise salvos from delayed snare reverb, Protect-U take a sound that would be a rushing, climactic tool in most current techno and instead use it to introduce tension and apply texture. It’s followed by a rolling funk bass line, twinkling synth chirps and jutting bleeps that intersect with melodic chord phrasings evoking a meditative calm, before changing gears and ending as a stripped-down cosmic burner. They may have called it “World Music” but where it ends up is closer to the sun. (Kuri Kondrak)
26. Roman Flügel, “Iron Curtain”
[Live At Robert Johnson] (buy)
It’s a tough task to choose the vital tracks from Roman Flügel’s 2011 catalog; everything the producer touches – or perhaps just looks at or thinks about — turns to gold. Even narrowing it down to Desperate Housemen, the EP from which “Iron Curtain” comes, provides only a little help. No doubt a consequence of Flügel’s penchant for FM synthesis, all four tracks showed distinct, separate personalities. And yet, they were all so utterly, unmistakably Roman. Then why select this one? Well, the German wunderkind has made a name for himself by making quirky, playful tracks. And “Iron Curtain” fulfills these criteria better than anything else he produced this year (competing with “Brasil” and “Bahia Blues Bootcamp,” admittedly). The most identifiably “Roman Flügel,” if you will. The main melody was a kind of schizophrenic Melody Pop-esque blooping; a versatile and totally unique timbre with the ability to move from a standing start to melodramatic highs in just a few bars. The track’s bleary pads and shuffling percussion felt similarly distinctive. Vital indeed. (Nick Connellan)
25. Crystal Maze, “Crystal Maze” (Chicago Skyway Remix)
[aDepth Audio] (buy)
When Crystal Maze released their debut, eponymous EP on aDepth Audio some months ago, it was immediately apparent that the four-tracker was not the work of mere amateurs. Indeed its members, Gstring and MarcoAntonio Spaventi — along with Aroy Dee — make up the trio R-A-G, who have released two highly accomplished EPs of their own already. The original title track from the EP is a deep, atmospheric house track, full of plaintive pads, and a bass line that aligns itself with the heartbeat. In the hands of Chicago Skyway the track takes on a whole new life, the bass line transformed, writhing, arpeggiated, insidious. Spanning several octaves, it manages to not just anchor the track but also provides the main melody. All that is required from here is to provide window dressing in the form of some purposeful claps, dilapidated snare fills and overdriven hi-hats. Addressing the balance of the sentiment presented in the original, Chicago Skyway rounds out his remix by incorporating the moody, ethereal pads for sections of the track. Not only does his mix serve to provide some dance floor heat to Crystal Maze’s excellent first outing, but it also ranks as one of the most compelling takes on a retro-futuristic Chicago house sound that was such a big part of 2011. (Per Bojsen-Moller)
24. Martyn, “Masks”
Martyn on Brainfeeder: the pairing of the L.A. beat freak (out) kings with the mature, measured, steady Dutchman certainly turned heads this year. And while the wildly experimental label was certainly not the first that many listeners would associate with a Martyn release, the results of this 12″ (and the resulting LP) were both strong and some of the most unabashed and simple 4/4 dance floor tracks Martyn has put his name to. Never mind “bass music” — this is house music: shuffling, bleepy, mildly experimental and imbued with the warmth, humanity and storytelling that Martyn has refined over the past few years.
Tucked away at the end of Burial’s Street Halo EP, “Stolen Dog” is one of the more moody and beautiful tracks from this elusive producer. When I reviewed the EP earlier this year, I compared it to Four Tet in terms of it’s melody, but also to the cinema and ballads. There is a very warm and loving quality to “Stolen Dog,” something that Burial’s music often eschews. The vocal snippets seem to coo at the listener, seducing them to just be in the moment with the music. It’s sad, wistful, but also hopeful, like falling in love. Clearly one of the most emotional Burial songs to date, it has a very minimal beat much like his first album, relying on melody and atmosphere to make the connection, showing compositional growth and maturity from the already vaunted artist. (Keith Pishnery)
22. The Citizen’s Band, “West 42nd”
[Live At Robert Johnson] (buy)
Where last year was Arto Mwambe’s biggest to date, 2011 has been a banner year for its two members. It began with an excellent single by Phillip Lauer, continued with the debut of Christian Beißwenger’s electro project with Oliver Hafenbauer, B.H.F.V, and concluded with a long overdue Beißwenger single (all of which took place on Live At Robert Johnson). The lead track “West 42nd” makes it clear why Beißwenger adopted The Citizen’s Band for this new material rather than carry on as CB Funk: this is freewheeling stuff. Its percussion cuts sassy, unexpected patterns in the fluffy, rainbow colored tones that zoom by, transporting listeners to a Mario Brothers’ cloud level where the floor evaporates at will. It certainly keeps dancers on their toes as well, first with a tricky kick deployment and later with a skittering return to beats post-breakdown. There has always been an undercurrent of the unexpected in Arto Mwambe’s classic-indebted tracks, and as The Citizen’s Band, that twisted sensibility steps into the spotlight and demands attention. What’s more, “West 42nd” has no peers to speak of, in house or elsewhere; it’s a sui generis masterpiece that’s likely to remain unique for a long time to come. (Anton Kipfel)
Being a genius is great and all, but if you can’t communicate your brilliant and paradigm-shifting ideas to us merely above-average individuals, then why even bother? Travis Stewart wasn’t the only producer on his own tip this year, but what’s notable about his, as exemplified by Room(s), was both how utterly alien his thesis was and how tangible its explication. “Come1,” arguably the album’s centerpiece, features everything both non-intuitive and deeply eloquent about Machinedrum in 2011. What begins with barrage of pianos and tambourines quickly reveals itself as something of a rainy-day lament, with Machinedrum’s half-lyrics coaxing honest-to-goodness indie rock guitars up from the bed of funk samples. When was the last time a track that would leave most dubstep DJs huffing and puffing made you tear up a little bit? “Come1″ is unquestionably one of the least expected and most thoroughly original journeys a dance music producer has taken us on this year, but its daring would be all for naught if Stewart couldn’t sell it, and doesn’t he ever. Like one six-minute-plus crossfade by a particularly adventurous DJ, “Come1″ begins one place and ever so effortlessly takes us to one we would never have imagined. (Jordan Rothlein)