As the world continued to crumble in 2010, it was never easier to huddle in a solipsistic state with your favorite music, whether you were hiding in a corner of your bedroom or a dance floor. Musically, things weren’t always so rosy either: while some scenes stagnated, dance music continued to fragment, and it was the brave warriors who patched things together that endured as the most memorable. Indeed, 2010’s indelible and unforgettable artists were the ones who made broad reaches towards other scenes and styles, daring leaps of faith into the unfamiliar. The 4/4 world of techno and house was never more buddy-buddy with the sensual swing of dubstep and its many offshoots, and most of the artists below made their presence known with music that stood defiantly in between these borders, blurring divisive genre lines into a lush soft focus. These five artists and their unparalleled vision gave 2010 its definition: the proudly stubborn inability to be defined.
Actress is the musical pseudonym for London producer Darren Cunningham, whose impenetrable haze was, well, impenetrable. His dubstep fans tended to lump him in with techno, and techno fans might have considered him more aligned with dubstep. The truth lies somewhere else entirely, as Cunningham’s productions take the most from the weirdest extremes of Drexciya. His 2010 output was, like a few others on this list, composed of only a few releases, but their palpable impact was unparalleled. Actress’ second album Splazsh was released on the well-respected Honest Jon’s label, inhabited its own universe, and laid out a unique alphabet for house music and electro. It was a language that lasted only as long as the album’s running time but proved unshakable, not only demanding repeat listens but creating a psychological demand for them: never has addiction been so encompassed in a piece of music. Splazsh led the way through a year captivated by engineered nostalgia and alternate universe fetishization but was unmatched in its complete conception of something pure and new. He was also one of the few to coax new music out of the infamous Zomby in 2010, and like Kassem Mosse released an EP on NonPlus+ where his sound was fitted with sharp metallic edges. These other moments are ultimately peripheral: a statement as confident and engrossing as Splazsh needs nothing but itself to justify a place in 2010’s pantheon of greatness.
04. John Roberts
Sometimes it’s the traditional and predictable story arcs that are the most satisfying. Cleveland’s John Roberts (now based in Berlin) burst onto the scene with a cloud of hype already clinging to him for dear life, quickly inking a deal with Dial. But even as the legendary Hamburg label started its slow and sad decline into irrelevance, Roberts’ star shone bright, releasing brilliant EP after EP that only exhibited further refinement. Indeed, it was Roberts who provided many of the highlights of the Laid sub-label that began to outshine its parent: tracks like “White” and “Blame” were the work of an artist trying to find his voice and striking gold. Roberts’ debut album Glass Eights justhad to be great — and it was — but the way it united the fickle and difficult international dance music community was nothing short of astounding, never mind around a label that had already been dismissed in the minds of many. Roberts proved an adept master of the form, creating something with as much living room merit as dance floor functionality, a piece that flowed with silky ease. If there’s one thing that everyone should be able to agree on, it’s that Roberts owned house music, at least for the second half of 2010. Even bass music godhead Hyperdub gave a nod, tapping Roberts to remix of one of 2010’s other most talked-about electronic music prospects in brooding pop auteurs Darkstar. You should know by now that one was great too.
03. James Blake
It’s a rare occurrence when dance music producers turn into pop stars — perhaps thankfully, considering the dip in quality that usually results. That James Blake seems well on his way towards the limelight, after just over a year on the scene and without watering down his strikingly idiosyncratic sound, is an even rarer occurrence. Never mind that he doesn’t really make dubstep — his spectral seances are unclassifiable, his innate ability for vocal manipulation easily rivaling David Kennedy’s. Blake began his year with the Bells Sketch for Hessle Audio, where he explored spindly g-funk atop lurching beats, and continued with a breathtaking remix of Mount Kimbie’s “Maybes.” Then he signed to R&S as part of that label’s bass music campaign, releasing the R&B-saturated CMYK EP and the fragile and intensely personal piano dirges of Klavierwerke, both of which garnered praise from sectors all but removed from dance music. But Blake ended 2010 with the first salvo from his upcoming debut, a straightforward cover of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love” featuring drilling sub-bass and Blake’s own, (nearly) untouched baritone. Where he goes from there remains to be seen, but 2010 will likely remain his banner year, where he deconstructed trends and made surprisingly inviting and inclusive outsider art from the fragments.
02. Kassem Mosse
There’s something to be said for restraint in these heady days of internet-enabled greedy consumption, and German techno/house producer Kassem Mosse embodies it to a tee in both his work ethic and his singular music. Mosse had a paucity of releases this year but his influence was felt everywhere, seeping even into dubstep-dominated UK sectors. After taking the dance music world by quiet storm with his releases on Workshop, the labels Mosse chose in 2010 were unsurprising. Namely, the previously unconquered territory of Dial sub-label Laid and Instra:mental’s drum-n-bass-leaning NonPlus+ imprint. Neither seems a likely home for the producer who hews close to the Workshop aesthetic of decayed and sludgy deep house (something increasingly referred to as “narcohouse,” for better or for worse). But Mosse’s sound shifted as unpredictably as did his music’s home. The NonPlus+ release showed him exploring the electro-indebted side of his music, balancing a militaristic march with the drum machine wind tunnels of “Hi Res,” and fit himself comfortably with the label’s disparate roster. Of course, there was also “Untitled” on Laid, the 11-minute epic that to touched on the entirety of Mosse’s career without repeating anything. With a new groundswell of support emerging from the bass-addled corners of the UK, Mosse’s star is rising rapidly: but even if he manages to squeeze out more than a few releases in 2011, I’m not sure they could possibly live up to the greatness he embodied in 2010.
01. David Kennedy
If you’ve been watching closely enough, there haven’t been very many genres or scenes that Leeds’ David Kennedy hasn’t wickedly twisted into his own instantly recognizable signature style. There’s just no one who can do the same things with a few dry, ticking snares and vocal fragments: Kennedy flips, snaps, wheels, and spins, recklessly flinging sounds into scattershot regions. Beginning 2010 in full sprint after a strong 2009, Ramadanman triumphantly dropped a stunning self-titled doublepack EP. The EP saw him bare and clinical — stylistically similar to his pal Untold — the string of reductions culminating in exemplary junglist nostalgia with the slippery “Don’t Change For Me.” Then saw the long-awaited release of his drum-n-bass flirtation, “Down With You,” after which Kennedy turned his gaze to juke. The confounding “Work Them” was perhaps the only UK track that came close to rivaling the ubiquity and rhythmic invention of Addison Groove’s “Footcrab.” Of course, there was also “Glut,” in which Kennedy snuck the juke influence into something much more conventional, or the white label “Grab Somebody” which woozily spun in circles until its edges blurred, or the coup of his refix of Jamie Woon’s “Night Air,” a loping pop-house number that managed to overshadow Burial. You know that’s not easy. Oh yeah, and he made some house and techno on Aus too. As if casually brushing all of this off, he released a new Pearson Sound EP on Hessle at the very end of the year, one which interrogated classic house through his typical palette, and pretty well sums up a monolithic year for the producer: expert, effortless, and jaw-dropping.