Brian Billion: Best Songs of 2009
The rise of of tribal minimal house? “The Dance” is anchored by a sound somewhere between a kick drum and bass, each beat taking a downward bend. Even as they fold in the congas and shouts there’s nothing that hits as hard as the pure drop at 0:38 seconds in.
Nadastrom – “Ghetto Pass” (YouTube)
The Saved EP is a meditation on the basic beat structure of Baltimore club. Nadastrom adheres to the letter of the law if not the spirit, whether it’s the horns of “Save Us”, the cut vocal opening of “Squarez”, or the subterranean kick of “Ghetto Pass”. This is my favorite of the lot, I was stunned by it this summer each time I heard them play it to open or close a set. What does it mean when the best tracks in a DJ’s set are their own, and the best of those are the ones that haven’t even been released yet? Big things.
Stefan Goldmann – “Art of Sorrow” (YouTube)
Ever since “A Fifth of Beethoven” hit #1 in 1976, dance music has periodically abused the hell out of classical music without giving anything back. Stefan Goldmann is changing that, engaging with 20th century composition in such a thorough and thoughtful way that he’s become one of the most distinct voices in the German house scene. He’s totally gone off the rails this year with his label’s splicing (not remixes, no beats, no additions) of twelve different recordings of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre Du Printemps”, and it’s fantastic. “The Art of Sorrow” is a bit of a banger by his standards, with a wandering bassline, grinding organ blasts, and a hugly menacing feel (check 3:15 seconds in). It’s like nothing else out there.
Drake – “Best I Ever Had (Skeemix ft. R Kelly)” (YouTube)
The song was inescapable on dance floors and winding out of car windows this summer, but I never got tired of it. It was the culmination of this decade’s trend of hip hop and r&b melding into a single genre, with Drake moving through tones and registers like different aspects of his voice were guesting on his own track. R. Kelly’s canny inclusion of it on his own mixtape amounts to an endorsement for a new generation of singers – he’s nearly 20 years older than Drake – but Kell’s verse and a half on the track runs circles around the youngster without even sounding like he’s trying.
Joker – “Digidesign” (YouTube)
Something’s changing in dubstep when ever a release on Hyperdub can have a sense of humor. “Digidesign” and the flip, 2000F & Jkamata’s rubbery “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, showed a new direction for dubstep’s increasingly screwfaced bassline stomps and were welcomed with open arms – he’ll be charting by next year.
La Roux – “In For The Kill (Skream’s Lets Get Ravey Remix)” (YouTube)
This song is waaaaay too serious, and that’s what makes it great. Stripping out the chintzy backing of the original, this comes across like the heartbroken and jaded aftermath of Baby D’s “Let Me Be Your Fantasy”, making it dubstep’s feel-bad anthem of the year. It wouldn’t be as appealing if it weren’t so self-consciously reaching to be huge, with Skream’s beatless expanses emphasizing how far the vocal stretches Elly beyond her abilities. It’s not a rave track, it’s a requiem for dance music’s utopianism.
Fan Death – “Reunited” ( YouTube)
Nothing complicated here – just a great song and video. Sounding like Violator-era Depeche Mode, it’s a little bit mystic and full of cosmic-level regret. For a band without so much as an EP out yet, Fan Death seems to have arrived in the world with a fully formed identity without so much as an EP to their name yet.
Holy Ghost! – “I Will Come Back (Classixx Acapulco Nights Version) (YouTube)
Classixx have been on fire, following in Aeroplane’s footsteps but beginning to carve out a niche for themselves with remixes like this one, repainting Holy Ghost!’s original with a sonic palette inspired by Toto’s “Africa” and Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It”. I think the far broader acceptance of the nu-balearic sound in the last year comes from people realizing that listening to a whole lot of Justice will leave you with tinnitus and not much else.
Tensnake – “Holding Back (My Love)” (YouTube)
Mining a similar vein, Tensnake skirts around Classixx’s outright embrace of pop to go a little deeper. Rather than adding decorative flourishes as a track proceeds, he builds the very substance of the track slowly, in this case with the main bassline not sneaking in until 3:12 and remaining in a holding pattern until the guitar motif really opens the track up at 5:23. It’s a huge embrace of a song, as rich and warming as a mug of hot chocolate.
Claude VonStroke – “Vocal Chords” (YouTube)
It comes across more in his recorded DJ sets than his usual live sets or productions, but Claude VonStroke has a serious love for arpeggiated melodies, and he finally made one. Made for the DJs that wish they could play more Kraftwerk, it puts the synthesized vowel runs right up front and continues straight down that path. No surprises, no shifts, just formalist dance music at its finest.