Indie rock this year slipped further into a cultural coma, orbiting around songs with shouty, sing-a-long choruses designed solely for Gen Y-targeting commercials, and the desiccated remains of dolewave. Given this poverty, I couldn’t help but turn to dance and rap when I was looking for something to not only move my feet but also my head and my heart. Club music in 2013 has expressed such a range of emotional experience that it’s become pretty much the only thing I listen to.
There’s the rise of the #sadboys movement, whose official flag-bearer is a young Swedish kid, Yung Lean, who from his small crew and other Soundcloud wanderers has drawn an amazing coterie of based beatmakers, over which he delivers his knowing, playful raps in a downcast, atonal Nordic vernacular. His free mixtape, Unknown Death 2002, picks up where cloud rap (the likes of Clams Casino and Friendzone) left off; an equal-parts sincere and ironic exploration of the sadder side of life in rap. Its genesis lies in Kanye West’s now-seminal 808s & Heartbreak, the ‘suffering from success’ narratives of Drake (peep this year’s Nothing Was the Same for an update) and his seedier protégé, The Weeknd, as well as the breathtaking, almost spiritual emotional openness of internet sensation Lil B ‘The Based God’. Lil B’s ‘I Love You’ is the self-proclaimed “MOST HONEST/TOUCHING VIDEO OF 2013” and features the Based God himself hanging out in a pet shop and literally crying as he speaks about how much love he has to give. Watching Lil B close out his wild, impassioned live set at the Hi-Fi Bar in Melbourne earlier this year, before taking pictures with fans for a good two hours, with this track was possibly the emotional apex of my year.
Kanye, for his part, redefined the personal-political-aesthetic collapse he has always excelled at on this year’s Yeezus. As delusional as it is righteous, it takes the sense of melancholy and resignation that that stalked the edges of his recent side projects, the G.O.O.D. Music Present: Cruel Summer compilation and Watch The Throne with Jay Z, ramping it up into a brilliantly fucked up, heavily-politicised psychodrama. Perfectly matched by its thrashing, idiosyncratic production thanks to outré producers including Arca, Evian Christ and Hudson Mohawke, at its heights Yeezus is a pure document of a furious tantrum, exhilarating to witness as it writhes about and lashes out.
Instrumental grime’s continued renaissance this year has also seen young producers run the emotional gamut, from transcendent and celestial (Strict Face’s ‘In Evergreen’, if you can find it) to the unsettling (Visionist, Bøne Squad) and the truly unnerving (Egyptrixx’s A/B Til Infinity). Newcomer MssingNo (yeah, named after the Pokémon glitch) matched the inventiveness of Burial’s vocal detournements, single-handedly reviving the otherwise tired R&B vocal flip with his introspective, otherworldly takes – check ‘Xe2’, which rings a sense of melancholy from lothario R. Kelly hitherto fore impossible. Then there’s the cold, industrial functionalism of the grime-influenced but genre-agnostic sound championed by UK-US sister labels Night Slugs and Fade to Mind, many of whose artists wordlessly articulate an emotional experience that’s closer to living in a world in which “the good things will get better and the bad things worse” (a quote from label head Kingdom) than anything else I’ve previously experienced.
But it’s not all bad. “Life is dynamic and the club experience should reflect that”, wrote producer Dubbel Dutch when he introduced his new EP, Cloud Club. “If things start to get too dark, stripped back or monotonous it becomes easy to disconnect. It’s great that contemporary music identifies and channels pain, but there’s also nothing wrong with celebration, striving, and being hopeful”. The triumphant strains of the EP’s first track ‘Left Behind’, still tinged with a hint of wistful nostalgia, were perhaps my favourite evocation of this euphoric ‘neon’ sound that has also increasingly marked oblique club music this year.
But there’s also the gloopy, bubble gum ecstasy of Sophie’s ‘Bipp’, perhaps the year’s most sonically WTF track, led by its gloriously simple vocaloid refrain “I can make you feel better”. There’s also the continually colourful output of London-based label PC Music, the deliriously catchy melodic glide of Chicago’s rising bop scene (scope Sicko Mobb’s ‘Remy Rick Routine’), and the continuing post-regional mutation of Jersey Club in the hands of happy-go-lucky producers the likes of local masters DJ Sliink and DJ Tray and masked producers Trippy Turtle and DJ Hoodboi.
Another regional scene also energised by a new level of global club attention is footwork, and figurehead DJ Rashad released two EPs on Hyperdub this year that perfectly encompass the breadth of club music. One is the melodramatic Rollin EP; the rain swept moving-yet-still ache of ‘Let It Go’ is beautiful. Then there’s the more recent and effusive I Don’t Give a Fuck, whose best track, ‘Everybody’, flips a surreal sample of the ‘World’s Best Cry’ YouTube clip into a propulsive juke belter.
Finally, there’s the experience of the sublime, the kind of elation and release that is unique to dance music. I experienced this perhaps most fully listening to three different artists: the achingly beautiful, beatless alien expanses of Koreless’ Yugen EP, designed by Glasgow producer Lewis Roberts to be “completely artificial and sci-fi” yet paradoxically pulsing with senses of hope and loss. Then there’s Norway’s Cashmere Cat, whose recent single ‘With Me’ was described perfectly by his label LuckyMe as an attempt to create “a perfect thing in an imperfect world”. Finally, it comes down to Montreal’s Sinjin Hawke, who with a handful of remixes and originals this year, has led me to feelings of utter elation more than any other. Listen to his remix of DJ Funk’s ‘Three Fine Hoes’ and just try not be swept up.