Digital/Divide is our monthly electronic column. These are the 10 best electronic records from 2018.
House music’s hold on South Africa’s music remained firmly intact in 2018, present in the gqom floorfillers of Distruction Boyz and the polyrhythmic dance-pop of Heavy-K, to name but a few. As such, no one ought be surprised that the Johannesburg township duo of vocalist Manteiga and producer Spoek Mathambo largely operate under the same thrall of electronic music’s enduring tradition here. For Kasi Royalty, they bridge retro energy with contemporary vibes for a frequently deep and thoroughly enjoyable clubwise romp. “Deep Ocean Deep” harkens back to CeCe Peniston and Crystal Waters’ respective classics, its title blurring cleverly through Manteiga’s lips. Beyond the gorgeous garage of “Just To Touch” and the Chicagoan thump of “Love At First Sight,” their shared city of influences enlivens things even further, from the Afrobeat jazz of “Babaloo” to the Soweto swagger of “Nika Mapha.” Mathambo’s musical mastery has long been apparent, and Batuk only reinforces his bonafides.
Longtime NAAFI devotees may likely recall this Chilean artist from 2013’s Nueva, an impressive EP of futurist urban dance structures. Five years later, he delivers a markedly more accessible full length heavy on vocal guests. Paul Marmota certainly hasn’t gone pop Latino, as evidenced by his subversive choice of eminently cool features over crossover types. Indeed, his Zona evinces deep tastemaking connections to the urbano underground, a rich selection of raperos and cutting-edge reggaetoneros to suit his still fairly left-field productions. He taps Tomasa Del Real and NAAFI bulwark Lao for “Poquito,” a opalescent neoperreo workout, and secures Spain’s Latin trap dark horse MC Buseta for the explosive “Dime Bonita.” Bass heads and dembow diehards find common ground in the trembling tones and rollicking rhythms of “Acelero” and “No Te Asustes.” As production showcases go, Marmota’s is easily the year’s best in format, coming right on time to demonstrates urbano’s wide sonic range.
With all due respect to RP Boo and all the Teklife crew, footwork’s meteoric rise over the past few years as one of club music’s most innovative forms couldn’t have been possible without Jlin. The Gary, Indiana, native has become the sample-stutter style’s lead visionary, staying true to the genre’s principles while thoughtfully nudging its boundaries on essential albums like last year’s Black Origami and its 2015 predecessor Dark Energy. An enthralling collaboration with choreographer Wayne McGregor, her bold score to his dance brings sound design further to fore. Wind chimes and watery droplets populate the disquieting yet magical “First Overture (Spiritual Atom),” a riveting introduction to rhythmic movements the soon to come. “Annotation” approaches with urgency, slowing only to amplify its earnestness and subtly mirror classical accents, while “Kundalini” covets a spiritual means to an end. “The Abyss Of Doubt” noisily whirrs with malfunction and mischievousness, its multiple clips clattering in ways that make one wonder how the presumably disoriented dancers cope in performance.
Some months back, in an art gallery space in downtown Manhattan, producer Hiro Kone celebrated her album release with a relentless set. Joined on the bill with Dais cohort and surviving Coil member Drew McDowall, she exhibited a pummelling renewal of industrial music’s proud spirit. Unlike the EBM revivalists and techno noiseniks currently futzing about, the broadness and intricacy of her compositions go beyond darkness and into depth. From the ritualistic title track to the factory floor groover “Truth That Silence Alone,” Pure Expenditure proffers a squirmy, unfeigned update of a genre too often distilled into neo-gothic posturing at the expense of the art. Traces of Throbbing Gristle’s diaspora, not the least of which being the latter day Carter Tutti adventure, reanimate the fried circuits of “Disoccupation Of The Sphere” and “Poortgebouw” with restless machine ghosts. Yet it’s the presence of renegade poet / torchsong chanteuse Little Annie on “Outside The Axiom” that fully and officially inducts the record into the canon.
Though currently residing in Manchester, P. Adrix grew up in Lisbon. That exposure to the experimental techno-kuduro hybrids of his homeland makes him an ideal ambassador of the sound to the U.K. Built into his amusingly chaotic debut are tricky tempos and gripping polyrhythms, laid bare on the deceptively minimal banger “Abertura Da Roda” and the caustic window wash “Tejo.” Like so much of what the stellar Principe puts into the world, Álbum Desconhecido is an admittedly demanding but profoundly rewarding listen, its discordant tendencies a sieve to sift out those whose ears and hips can’t hang. Adrix’s approach occasionally blends batida with more distinctly British sounds, particularly those of the region’s fruitful bass and grime scenes. “Viva La Raça” spends its first half building like a Skepta instrumental before launching Afro-Portuguese percussive elements into the mix. A broken lullaby of twinkling jazz, “Sonhos” snaps to grid around its mellifluous melody.
The global impact of bass continues to send ripples upon ripples across dancefloors and studios alike. No exception to this situation, Barcelona revealed one of its more polyamorous arrangements with Worldwide Ángel, a wicked record that applied sticky gloss to edgy urbano. While prior work like 2016’s Slow Wine and the following year’s impressive single “Jacaranda” sometimes felt a smidgen too close to Rihanna worship, this project hoists the would-be star onto a stage fully her own. With producers Dubbel Dutch and Jam City in tow for hooky insta-classics “Candela” and “Internationally,” her auto-tuned technique here matches her love of reggaeton, dancehall and poppy R&B. She primes the floor for both dutty wine and perreo on “Tra” and gets lost in the sauce for echo chamber anthem “Yo Sigo Iual.” Dembow grounds her ethereal singing on “Tu Moto,” while she levels up in more ways than one over the restrained dancehall rhythm crafted by Paul Marmota and Fakeguido on single-worthy closer “Realize.”
Now more than a decade since introducing the 0PN moniker on 2007’s Betrayed In The Octagon, Daniel Lopatin’s improbable emergence as his generation’s most important avant-garde musician manifests in an unconventional and pressing new audio document. Where 2015’s Garden Of Delete belched Cronenberg body horror and last year’s Good Time soundtrack delivered key bumps of pure Tangerine Dream, Age Of is the galaxy brain meme remixed into incomprehension. A confoundingly insular and artistically dense presentation inhabited by mangled avatars, nuclear winterized cowgirls and gritty reboots of Geoffrey Chaucer, these intriguing songs melds the metaphysical gunk of video games with the imagined remnants of arcane cultures. While the manifold references secreted here and inserted there may leave laypersons in philosophical paralysis, there’s still palpable beauty and sincerity on tracks like “Last Known Image Of A Song” and “Toys 2.” Sporting a guest vocal by ANOHNI, the gloomy R&B of “Black Snow” at least lets Lopatin speak his mind, as bleak as it may be.
Much of Kevin Martin’s work has come through the means of collaboration, from the far out hip-hop of Techno Animal to the dancehall devastation of The Bug. Whether crafting Ballardian drone metal with Dylan Carlson or dystopian dub for Roger Robinson, the Berlin-based producer rarely, if ever, disappoints. As if teaming up with dubstep mystery man Burial wasn’t enough of an event to kick off his new Pressure imprint this year, he taps dynamite vocalist Miss Red for the label’s first full-length project, with himself manning the boards. A wondrously flexible instrument, her voice proves unpredictable across K.O., a record whose title and cover art salutes her former prizefighter papa. With a similarly pugilistic stance, she pummels on powerful cuts like “Shock Out” and “Slay,” both fueled by Martin’s piston-strength riddims. Elsewhere, she presents with sinister iciness, resulting in ominous moments such as “Dust” and “One Shot Killer.” Though reggae’s breadth takes up the bulk of the record, the boom bap bugaboo “Memorial Day” wriggles out of the genre like a voracious worm, Miss Red’s wafer-thin coo sounding alarms.
As the American mainstream spent the “Despacito” aftermath getting further acquainted with urbano pop stars like J Balvin, Ozuna and Daddy Yankee, the reggaeton underground kept plugging away. And nobody represented quite so effectively as Tomasa Del Real, Chile’s leading neoperreo proponent. With production contributions by brunOG, Toy Selectah, and Ulises Lozano, among others, Bellaca del Año exudes authenticity as it proffers a vibrant alternative to the crossover singles presently peppering the Billboard charts. An anthem in the tradition of Ivy Queen’s “Yo Quiero Bailar,” her “Perra Del Futuro” puts ladies first on the dancefloor. While much of the material here is forward-thinking fare like “Marcame” and “Sirena,” she reaches back to work with known quantities in the genre’s history of success, including DJ Blass and frequent Don Omar partner Alcover. Of course, nothing tops the project’s superb lead single “Barre con el Pelo,” a trap Rapunzel tale colored by jerky synths and driven dembow.
Regular readers of this monthly column can assuredly intuit a not exactly mild disdain for normalcy held by yours truly. In these politically divisive times, it often feels sinful to retreat into the musically basic, less self-care than willful ignorance. While that might sound unfair to those spending the final month of 2018 marveling over the latest pop hits and parsing comic book movie trailers, such conspicuous consumption too often dominates the conversation, stifling art that addresses truly pressing matters vital to humanity and society. Revolutionary music struggles to rise above the Spotify algorithm, try as it might to compete in a virulently me-centric marketplace. One of the best albums I’ve ever heard in my entire life, let alone this year, Basic Volume both captures and challenges our tumultuous times, those ugly realities pushed aside by a collective desire to retreat into perpetual iPhone ecstasy. GAIKA emerges like a razor blade from the teeth, ready to slice against an enemy’s jugular with sharp lyricism that repeatedly calls for literal revolt. On the grand and twinkling “Immigrant Sons,” he appeals directly to the youth to make rebellion happen, fully aware of where buy-in must occur to enact change. A deadly emcee and genre-flaunting producer, he makes his case in personal, accessible and artistic terms, commandeering dancehall for “Black Empire” and drill for “Crown & Key.” For the sake of our future, one hopes the kids take heed.
Deena Abdelwahed, Khonnar (InFiné)
Amnesia Scanner, Another Life (PAN)
Marie Davidson, Working Class Woman (Ninja Tune)
Debit, Animus (NAAFI)
Heavy-K, Respect The Drumboss 2018 (Drumboss Muzik / Universal)
Ian Isiah, Shugga Sextape Vol. 1 (UNO NYC)
Lotic, Power (Tri Angle)
Kelly Moran, Ultraviolet (Warp)
SOPHIE, Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides (Transgressive / Future Classic)
Kai Whiston, Kai Whiston Bitch (Gloo)
Born, raised and still living in New York City, Gary Suarez writes about music and culture for a variety of publications. Since 1999, his work has appeared in various outlets including Forbes, High Times, Rolling Stone, Vice and Vulture, among others. In 2020, he founded the independent hip-hop newsletter and podcast, Cabbages.