It’s tough to pick just 10 when the past few months produced a staggering collection of gold tunes. I had triple that number which took a good week to suss through, but made the cut through gritted teeth. From emerging talented producers like Fauxe and Gema to Four Tet’s 24-word title track and Sven Helbig’s neo-classical masterpiece, here’s my pick for the month. But don’t take my word for it. Try ‘em on for size.
Fauxe - Zion
The masked crusader has been winging high towards prominence over the past year with a string of quality releases. Take his recent 6-track 'Comfort EP' out on Phyla Digital last February for example, it’s peppered with a discerning variety of dreamy, nostalgic and chugging samples filling up the underbelly of house, garage and experimental.
The sickest of the six for me is “Zion”. Its film noir-esque theme runs its course through trip-hop beats, dark basslines and blaring horns –Portishead’s “Numb” meets Groove Armada’s “My Friend” kind of craft.
However, it doesn’t indulge in itself for far too long laying low as it approaches the fade. Makes you want to smoke a pipe while walking down1960s New York. Or something.
KH - The Track I've Been Playing That People Keep Asking About and That Joy Used in His RA Mix and Daphni Played on Boiler Room
Kieran Hebden aka Four Tet’s satirical swipe at how music is being consumed on the Internet is veiled behind a magnificently lengthy 24-word title. The track -- released for free on the enigmatic producer’s Twitter last month -- points to how audio rippers stalk webcasts and mixes for that unreleased record only to put it up on YouTube with names like “Untitled 63” or “Big Room Tech House DJ Tool – Tip!” before its official release.
For the uninitiated, Kieran based the track’s namesake when it was played by London-based Joy Orbison in his Resident Advisor mix and Caribou’s Daniel Snaith more clubby moniker, Daphni’s Boiler Room set. But beyond this commentary, Kieran’s tribal track recalls Visti & Meyland’s “Yes Maam” pounded with fat uneven beats and African chants. In the realm of minimal, this is a sure-fire gem.
Gema - I Heard It Through The Grapevine
On the back of a wave of spectacular releases -- from his Before EP last year to remixes of Cassie’s “Me & U” and Monster Cat’s “Underwater” and originals, “Jasmine”, “Emma” and “Prayer” -- the quiet singer-producer had just put out a reinterpretation of a classic and made it very much his own.
In a similar vein to his previous releases, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” is texturally refined and well coated for growth of goose bumps on an arm near you.
Sonically, this makes for an ideal tranquil soundtrack backed by visions of dystopian grandeur. The track opens with a soft line of velvety synth and sprinkles of bass –soon laced by the breezy vocals of the man himself. Rings of what sounds like raindrops pelts the arrangement from the middle onwards, invoking hues of dark cinematic moods and a breathier soundscape.
Here’s something you’ll put on a loop only to wonder, an hour later, why it still is.
Oh, talking about James Blake…
James Blake - Retrograde
It’s convenient to label the English post-dubstep crooner as a purist. Well, that’s because he is. But the chap’s all grown up now and has made it apparent on his next album. Titled Overgrown (out April 8), the 10-track LP will feature RZA and Brian Eno and is a stirring depart from his debut self-titled – seriously self-absorbed but equally beautiful – experimental album.
If the first single off his sophomore effort is anything to go by, “Retrograde” has the vocal clarity of “The Wilhelm Scream” and I can only hope James keep that up because his sappy falsetto shouldn’t be drowned out by weird ass distortions all the damn time.
Perhaps he has realised that there’s nothing to compensate for. “Retrograde” might even garner him greater visibility on mainstream territory. This will hurt him. Then again, James makes top-drawer songs when he’s moody as fuck. Go sad James, go!
Justin Martin & Eats Everything - Feather Fight
The first time I came across Dirtybird label’s Justin Martin was from his debut album 'Ghettos & Gardens' –a visionary 12-track house masterpiece.
Now, there are people who have been trying to redefine house and got it all messed up. Think: David Guetta and Ty Pennington (you know, that dude from the reality series Extreme Makeover: Home Edition).
But how Justin blends house, garage and UK bass into his own distinctive style slots him cosily alongside the likes of Disclosure, Duke Dumont, Dusky, George Fitzgerald, Joy Orbison and Eats Everything. And when you have the latter – an emerging English-born producer in his own right – in a collaboration with San Francisco-native, Justin, beats be brewing swimmingly.
Birthed from this bilateral meet is the two-track single, Feather Light. The title track on the A-side is a wobbly house dancefloor stunner. “Harpy”, taken from the B-side, is a chugging bass-ridden piece that goes from house to garage --living room party material.
Octover - Time
From singer-songwriter Vanessa Fernandez and electronic producer Jason Tan’s self-titled debut album, “Satisfy”, “Hurt” and a cover of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” has been given much international love from the likes of Pitchfork to Pretty Much Amazing.
But it is “Time” that clocked in the lab of musical technicality, filled up the ashtray with a pyramid of cigarette butts, coffee stains under the nails, worked overtime and the result – a 10 minute cure for aural cancer.
The monumental track is the kind that requires you to listen to it over and over again just for the magic to take effect. It opens dramatically with swirling strings and horns towards sporadic key arrangements on top of Vanessa’s husky acapella. Peaking towards an upbeat acid-jazz repertoire, the track heads on to freeform style showcasing the duo’s unconventional ebb and flow and onto a finger-snapping dance routine.
Music Weekly called “Time” the album’s strongest. Jolt Radio mentioned that her (Vanessa’s) voice is reminiscent of some of Sade’s work. “There was never a dull moment,” Bandwagon commented while Other Sounds attest that the track is a climax for the entire LP.
Sounds just about right.
Sam Smith - Lay Me Down
Known as that black guy singing on Disclosure’s “Latch”, English (and white) crooner Sam Smith’s vocal range has been conveniently compared to the male equivalent of Adele courtesy of his heart-wrenching solo effort, “Lay Me Down”.
The original version produced by brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence of Disclosure just doesn’t have the impact as the stripped down acoustic version (featured above) has.
Sam’s sharp falsetto rings through this particular version, showcasing the true nature of his modal register. He’s perhaps the most underrated singer-songwriter around –though that much is justified since he hasn’t released any other tracks, but this emotive belter might be a game changer.
Sven Helbig - Eisenhüttenstadt
Orchestral concertos are on another level of complexity and technical mastery altogether. And I totally dig it.
The esoteric beauty found in German composer Sven Helbig’s recently released neo-classical album, Pocket Symphonies (out on iconic label Deutsche Grammophon), speaks of that level.
His work is based on Gesamtkunstwerk –a German word that means “an all-embracing form” and has been accepted in English as a term in aesthetics. Off the album is “Eisenhüttenstadt”, my fav from the 12-track album that’ll take you to visceral places never been.
The track opens in a startling pace, building up towards an arrangement that disorients in the lost alleyway of strings, blaring horns and piano keys. It calms down with twinkles of what sounds like a xylophone and peaks into a heady rush only to crash on a lonely slate of a violin. Dramatic stuff.
But hey, Sven isn’t one to be imprisoned behind timbered chambers; he has worked with Rammstein, Pet Shop Boys and Snoop Dogg to name a few. Which makes him kinda cool.
Tessela - Hackney Parrot
23-year-old Englishman Ed Russell aka Tessela was to launch the track as a debut on his new label Poly Kicks this month. Then Chicago house maestro Jackmaster played in on his Boiler Room set. Then hardworking audio ripper, Aliasizm posted it up on his YouTube page. Then the Internet exploded.
All very KH “The Track I've Been Playing That People Keep Asking About and That Joy Used in His RA Mix and Daphni Played on Boiler Room”.
It’s hard to credit Ed or Jack in the terrain of hype when, really, Aliasizm pimped it out for size and made it a must-have arsenal for DJs when the dancefloor is going on empty. This and Disclosure’s “Latch”.
“Hackney Parrot” is bundled up with “Helter Skelter” as Tessela’s first string of releases.
The former is a bass-heavy peak-hour banger on the drop –sure to make your knees give way. The latter is a perfect filler for whatever’s coming up next as it stretches what sounds like an extended play of “Hackney Parrot” allowing people to breathe a ’lil before they, you know, die.
Woodkid - I Love You
This list was curated in alphabetical order if you haven’t noticed already. But in an odd way, we’re at the best for last.
“I Love You” is one of 12 tracks taken from Frenchman Yoann Lemoine aka Woodkid’s forthcoming debut album The Golden Age (out on March 18.) His 2011 Iron EP –its title track has been used everywhere from video games to films– proved too much of a teaser of a rather long wait.
But we’re almost reaching what has been recognised as the most-anticipated (and important) electronic albums of the year.
There’s a similar quality of impact that runs through all of his tracks: a brute force of invigorative emotions and compelling power all strung together in a fit of tribal-esque drums, symphonic arrangements and, of course, his monologue-sounding poetic lyrical endeavours –the soundtrack of a film’s climax; on repeat.
As for Yoann, he isn’t just an electronic producer. He directed all of his music videos earning him a Best Music Video nomination at the 2013 Grammy Awards for “Run Boy Run”. On top of his six MTV Video Awards nominations (for Lana Del Rey’s “Born To Die” amongst others), the multi-talented artist bagged Best Director of the Year at the 2012 MVPA Awards.
Boy, does this guy have mad chops or what?