For the better part of 2016, it’s been too easy to reduce EDM to a punchline — for starters, top tier act David Guetta dropped a cover of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” late last year. But for all the news about EDM’s bubble bursting, Avicii hanging up his banjo and SFX Entertainment going bared midriff up, there’s been plenty of life in the form, from the rise of tropical house to new producers pulling from global sounds for their crossover rhythms.
Baauer’s Aa found the producer taking a different tack to escape from EDM’s tropes, distancing himself from the unshakeable “Harlem Shake” meme and withholding easy pay-offs for most of the album. Instead he offered up gritty collaborations with new U.K. grime star Novelist, Pusha T and M.I.A. that will still send kids into a frenzy on the Mad Decent circuit. However, Kygo’s Cloud Nine and singles like Matoma’s “Paradise” are the ones truly setting the tone for 2016, proving that the lazy, steel drum-kissed vibes of tropical house have blown in to stay: The days of nose-bleed bass drops and punishing BPMs might be behind us. Slower mellowness might rule not only the next phase of EDM but also pop music, those shimmering pulses appearing in singles ranging from Justin Bieber to Fifth Harmony. Splitting the difference between the two is Flume’s Skin, wherein the Australian SoundCloud wunderkind blends the pop-ready dubstep of the former with the dreamy pads of the latter. With a supporting cast that includes Beck, AlunaGeorge and Vince Staples, it makes for an infectious hybrid.
In much the same manner that the Norwegians appropriated the sounds of the Caribbean, producers have been leaping continents in search for new timbres and flavors. Montreal-by-way-of-Haiti, Kaytranada‘s 99% wove together modern R&B, future bass and hip-hop — but his cleverest flip came when he chopped up a tricky Brazilian number (Gal Costa’s “Pontos de Luz”) for “Lite Spots.” And the U.K.-and-Africa club subgenre known as “Afrobeats” — a sound that takes from U.S. pop and African house music — got a boost when Drake teamed with Nigerian upstart Wizkid on “One Dance,” introducing the sound to the U.S. charts.
It makes no sense that Detroit-born Mike Posner had to travel all the way to the Mediterranean for his biggest hit, “I Took a Pill in Ibiza,” when house music originated in his backyard. This year finds the Motor City originators and practitioners still doing heady work. With over 55 years experience between them, Juan Atkins (part of the original Belleville Three) teamed with Berlin techno blueprint maker Moritz von Oswald for Borderland’s Transport, a mesmerizing deep dive into dub techno. And onetime Underground Resistance alumni Robert Hood teamed with his daughter Lyric to deliver an ecstatic gospel-rooted envisioning of dance music with Floorplan’s Victorious. Even though he’s a relative newcomer on the Detroit scene in comparison, Kyle Hall’s From Joy effortlessly moved from bangers to jazz-chord drifts to tricky footwork-inspired tracks. In Chicago, house legend Larry Heard returned with his star-gazing Qwazars EP and the Sun Ra-indebted Africans With Mainframes’s KMT looked back to Ancient Egypt via bruising acid lines.
Electronic music is always at its most visceral and thrilling when it mutates into strange new forms before our ears, oft-times using only the simplest of elements. Dada diehards Matmos’ Ultimate Care II spun dizzying tracks out of little more than a Whirlpool washing machine — perhaps a shout-out to Larry Heard’s own “Washing Machine”? — while Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s EARS utilized a Buchla Music Easel to conjure up a hallucinatory tropical atmosphere. Tim Hecker’s Love Streams found another world in the throats of an Icelandic choir and Andy Stott’s Too Many Voices delved deeper into fourth world weirdness using only Alison Skidmore’s voice as a guide. At the other end of the spectrum, Autechre’s Elseq 1-5 was a daunting, delirium-inducing four-hour journey/data dump through the duo’s exhilarating music in all of its permutations.
Perched somewhere between electronic abstraction and EDM bombast was Anohni’s Hopelessness. A sorrowful declaration tucked inside of an electronic album, Anohni utilized the evocative productions of Hudson Mohawke and Oneotrix Point Never to deliver an album about drone warfare, torture, global warming and government surveillance that makes you complicit even as you danced to it. It’s intense, but it showed that EDM needn’t only be used as the soundtrack for pills and escape — it can also become the sound of protest.