From Asusu to Willow, FACT’s Scott Wilson picks out the most innovative, grin-inducing and downright banging house and techno tracks of 2016.
Whether you enjoy dancing at superclubs in Ibiza or listening to all-vinyl DJ sets in under-the-radar basement venues, 2016 was a difficult year for ravers.
Those travelling to the White Isle had to contend with a new tourism tax and Amnesia being raided, Londoners had to battle a spate of high profile club closures that almost ended with Fabric’s demise and women continued to fight for equal representation on club and festival bills around the world. Worst of all were the tragedies in Orlando and Oakland, which demonstrated the dangers marginalised communities still face just to have a good time. Berlin still has Berghain, but the manner in which talk show host Conan O’Brien presented it to the world felt more like a carnival sideshow act than a cultural destination recognized by the German government.
Compared to the fast-moving club genre, house and techno have a reputation for being slightly conservative, or, as Bloc co-founder George Hull claimed this year, “tedious and diluted.” Underneath the surface though, 2016 was the most interesting year these 30-year-old genres have had for some time. Collectives across the world proved the underground spirit of house and techno was far from dead, with Brooklyn’s Discwoman crew and London’s Whities label just a few examples of people throwing inclusive parties and making innovative music. Even main stage star Nina Kraviz stuck two fingers up to the notion that a techno DJ should be expected to play a continuous set of steady 4/4 kick drums.
The following 20 tracks – arranged in alphabetical order – may not be the year’s biggest end-of-night anthems or most ubiquitous tracks. But whether they’re by established icons or newcomers with one 12″ under their belt, each track comes from an artist that stood out this year because they don’t sound like anyone else.
Livity Sound member Asusu’s music has been getting increasingly spiky in recent years, but ‘Hallucinator’ sounds like a hornets’ nest that’s been shut in a barrel and kicked down a hill. If you’ve ever wanted to know what kind of music Drexciya might have made like if they’d lived in Bristol instead of Detroit, look no further.
On ‘The Frontier’, Avalon Emerson writes a love letter to her childhood home in rural Arizona, crafting a techno track that evokes the dust and dry heat of the desert in a way that also reflects her own bittersweet longing and the strange beauty of its alien landscape. Nothing else transported you to a totally different place as successfully as this in 2016.
Barker & Baumecker
Barker & Baumecker reasserted their position as Ostgut Ton’s most exciting act with this year’s exceptional Turns, but it was the 12″ track ‘Cipher’ that was most primed for the club. Balancing a deep, melodic intro with a heavy kick drum and metallic percussion, it’s as close as you’ll get to the Berghain experience without having to stand in line.
Batu has quietly been one of Bristol’s most exciting producers for a few years, and this year he made his mark with a string of essential tracks. ‘Reez’ is Batu in a nutshell: trippy rhythms, bass that pulls you in like a black hole and enough space to get lost in. His Timedance label has been equally as essential in 2016.
26-year-old Bjarki isn’t old enough to be a member of the rave generation, but no artist this year made music that captured the spirit of the era quite like him. He’s not just a lazy revivalist churning out carbon copies though: ‘Fresh Jive’ reassembles the old skool into one of the year’s most imaginative techno cuts.
‘I’m Alright Mate’
Bristol’s Bruce made good on the promise of his 2014 debut with a clutch of killer 12″s spanning ambient house and off-kilter grooves. However, it was ‘I’m Alright Mate’ for Timedance that stopped us in our tracks, combining the urgent spirit of Jeff Mills’ fastest, heaviest tracks with the kind of contorting, jaw-dropping breakdowns Objekt does so well.
Across its nine-minute duration, Don’t DJ’s ‘Gammelan’ has exactly the same effect as listening to a gamelan ensemble, using repetition to make you lose all sense of time and space. He wasn’t the only producer experimenting with polyrhythms in 2016, but this track proves they can be meditative as well as hypnotic.
Robert Hood hasn’t tweaked the Floorplan formula much in 20 years (apart from the addition of his daughter, Lyric) because he doesn’t need to. You could pick any track from this year’s Victorious album as a standout, but the call to worship of ’Music’ is the one that affirms the positive message of his gospel-influenced techno better than anything he’s released.
‘Prophase Metaphase Anaphase Telophase’
Don’t Be Afraid
Karen Gwyer has a unique knack for making music that’s tough and gooey at the same time. ‘Prophase Metaphase Anaphase Telophase’ is her best track yet, blending pulsating organs with whip-crack snares and granite kicks in a psychedelic swirl that captures the power of her killer live sets. One for the 8am crowd.
You wouldn’t think that big room leads and syncopated techno would make great companions, but Kowton proved they do on last year’s ‘On Repeat’. The closing track from this year’s Utility album is even better, compressing his gigantic chords into a stuttering drum track that sounds like his early grime experiments.
‘Naive To The Bone’
No artist made techno sound quite as pop in 2016 as Montreal artist Marie Davidson. The spoken-word lyrics and analog riffs of ‘Naive To The Bone’ come across like a minimal wave take on LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Losing My Edge’ without the lesson in music history and delivered with an ice-cold, 100 yard stare across the dancefloor.
Porter Ricks’s semi-legendary status has only grown in the 17 years since their last release, and this year’s new EP for Tresor shows they’ve still got it. ‘Shadow Boat’ is the year’s most labyrinthine techno track, burying layer upon layer of tense electronics on throbbing bass and jittery drums. Proof, if we ever needed it, that dub techno will never die.
‘Love The Way’
Galcher Lustwerk isn’t just a great producer, he’s got keen A&R skills too. This year he broke the sound of Quavius, a Florida artist who also combines rap and deep house, with ‘Love The Way’ throwing cloud rap into the mix. When you wanted a house track to evoke the feel of driving down a palm tree-lined road in a convertible, this was the one to reach for.
‘N.Y. Diva Has Been Set On Fire (Kasha’s Short Vocal Mix)’
Traumprinz’s ‘2 The Sky’ (as remixed by DJ Metatron) is the obvious choice for the year’s biggest Giegling-associated track, but this physical store-only track was better and more enjoyable in every way. An EBM-house monster that sounds like Front 242 made a dubplate for Larry Levan to play at the Paradise Garage.
‘I Can Mend Your Broken Heart’
Where To Now?
Despite her name, Machine Woman delivered one of the year’s most intimate techno tracks. ‘I Can Mend Your Broken Heart’ has the metronomic clunk of an assembly line and the synthetic hum of a server room, but the vocals telling a weary tale of clubbing and dating in the German capital are very much human.
Larry Heard’s ‘Qwazars’ is more of a reflection on mankind’s place in the universe than communal club gospel like his classic ‘Can You Feel It’. However, it taps into a wisdom the generation of artists Heard’s music influenced have yet to learn. House in 2016 was often formulaic, but Heard’s comeback proves the form can find new ways to move us.
If you were lucky to enough to hear ‘Skips Desk’ in a club this year, your reaction may well have been “what the hell is this?” Pangaea has been quietly blowing minds for a decade, and the moment in this track that sounds like someone had to reboot the rave because it suffered a blue screen of death is the year’s most jaw-dropping breakdown.
‘Clear Eyes, Full Heart’
Peder Mannerfelt dropped one of the year’s standout experimental albums in Controlling Body, but he’s been responsible for some of 2016’s best club tracks as well. ‘Clear Eyes, Full Heart’ is the standout of this unstoppable streak, blending rave, dubstep and techno into and iron-clad banger not seen since the heyday of UK bass.
Contrary to its name, UMFANG’s ’Force’ is a very un-forceful track, teasing a drop that never comes across its six minutes, letting a wiry arpeggio rachet up the tension. It’s the antithesis of the Discwoman co-founder’s blistering DJ sets, trading in restraint rather than letting loose a barrage of kick drums at the dancefloor.
Willow’s only released five tracks, but she’s already established herself with an unmistakable signature sound. On ‘Untitled A2’ she takes her usual mix of smoky vocals, deep sub-bass and bristling percussion and makes something more like dubstep than house. She doesn’t add anything else because she doesn’t need to – the atmosphere speaks for itself.
Read next: The 25 best club tracks of 2016