How far we’ve come in the last 12 months. Not. The world is still in the sociopolitical mess it was in this time last year, if anything even deeper into it. Our job is to look at the ways in which the musical landscape has changed in the past year; has it reacted to all the chaos, or simply offered escape from it—or neither, or both? In a year that saw dark sounds loom, pop rise again, and Spotify dominance hit worrying new heights, picking out a narrative is tough, but Sam Davies has been listening closely…
Popular tastes in recent years have been moving one way along what I will now term the “pop spectrum.” With, say, ABBA’s “Mamma Mia” at one end and er, Exai by Autechre at the other, the spectrum accounts for everything from the brightest pop to the darkest underground. For most of the past decade, the Overton window of popular taste—the range of music supported by both fans and critics, not simply the charts—has shifted in the direction of darkness. This is speaking generally, but a glance at some of 2017’s standout artists—Kelela, Tzusing, Arca, Actress, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Caterina Barbieri, the Northern Electronics crew, Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement—indicates that the current vogue lies in minor keys, pummeling beats, and shadowy ambience.
Why is this the case? That’s less obvious: you could easily spin a “hard times equals hard music” argument, but aren’t times always hard, man? Perhaps more likely is that the thinking music fan’s tastes have darkened in reaction to the relentless glare of the mainstream; the charts force upon us their empty, Hillary Clinton smiles (it’s official, pop’s shitter than ever), so serious music fans listen to the polar opposite.
This year the popular taste window has continued in the same direction, though the results have been different to what you might think. These are some of 2018’s biggest musical trends, taking in the year’s best albums, tracks—and what they’ve done to the pop spectrum.
2 the Dark
Much of this year’s best music is every bit as dark as the last. An early indicator was Houndstooth’s gorgeously grim In Death’s Dream Kingdom compilation, inspired by T. S. Eliot’s 1925 poem “The Hollow Men” in which characters are paralyzed in a state of moral contemplation as they stare glumly into the murky abyss of death. The album prefaced a fine year in experimental music: Dream Kingdom’s fierce, wicked beauty lingered over breakthrough albums from Peder Mannerfelt, Forest Drive West, Sophia Loizou, We Will Fail, and Ian William Craig; while singles from Batu and Lanark Artefax further established both artists as two of the most exciting around.
Few have done more for darkly beautiful experimental music than Jóhann Jóhannsson, who sadly died in February while arguably at the peak of his powers ("Mercy," "Mary Magdalene," and "Mandy," all scored by Jóhannsson, have hit screens since.) Jóhannsson’s haunting studio masterpiece Englabörn was reissued in March along with reworks from several of his contemporaries. Hovering somewhere between classical and minimalism, Jóhannsson’s compositions are in direct contrast to the Hans Zimmer blockbuster scores still dominating mainstream cinema. He preferred the unnerving over the uplifting, and paved the way for a new wave of experimental artists like Mica Levi, Oneohtrix Point Never, Jonny Greenwood, Thom Yorke, Ben Salisbury, and Geoff Barrow to break into film music with their own interpretations of terror. While Zimmer remains popular, this year’s outpouring of adoration for Jóhannsson indicates a contemporary fondness for the bleak: I’d take the Sicario OST over Inception any day.
The taste for gloom has rarely been clearer than at the surprise double album-drop of Mudshadow Propaganda and Nothing 2 Loose, two albums recorded under new aliases—Prime Minister of Doom and DJ Healer respectively—by the artist variously known as Prince of Denmark, DJ Metatron, and Traumprinz. Whether because of the producer’s unmistakeable brand of melancholic techno or the shroud of irresistible mystery that encircles him, both records sold out within hours of their cryptic announcement. There are few electronic artists to have emerged in the last 10 years capable of such a marketing feat; fortunately for DJ Healer’s trusting fans, the music was some of the best we’ve heard from him, and no less morose than the rest of his catalog.
Houndstooth’s medieval sprawl, Jóhannsson’s swansong, and DJ Healer’s god-fearing spirituality are three of 2018’s dark listens, but there’s similar a dimness almost everywhere you look. The shadow spread over minimal realms, encompassing SIT’s Invisibility, Lawrence’s Illusion, Francis Harris’s Trivial Occupations, Maayan Nidam’s Sea of Thee, Space Afrika’s Somewhere Decent to Live, Map.ache's Vom Ende Bis Zum Anfang, and early releases on Acronym’s new label Stilla Ton; a strong year for ambient saw brilliantly cloudy releases from GAS, Kasper Bjørke, and Huerco S.’s nascent West Mineral Ltd label; a resurgent EBM scene inspired music from DJ Richard, I Hate Models, Ancient Methods, and Terence Fixmer, all of which was far dingier than the genre’s chorus-inflected origins; and even those hard-to-place, out-there-on-their-own artists took inky new directions, as on Jlin’s Autobiography, Nils Frahm’s All Melody, and Objekt’s Cocoon Crush.
All these wonderfully shady sounds suggest a music landscape tormented by inner angst. Of course, not all dark music is necessarily glum—Proc Fiskal’s Insula is as playful as it is moody, Peder Mannerfelt’s Daily Routine raises the roof while also raising hell—and an unhappy listener can find comfort in somber listening. But when so much of what we hear is inspired by troubles, it can all feel a bit…sad.
Already, it sounds like a number of artists are fighting the abjection, finding reasons to be happy, to celebrate, to dance even. In the DJ booth, Objekt has consistently sought ways to circumvent the humdrum, rarely more openly than in a recent tweet asking his followers to recommend him “propulsive club tracks with no kick drum,” in the same vein as Barker’s Debiasing EP. The ensuing thread blew up with suggestions, and one—Sunareht’s lovely “Super Suna Odyssey”—made it into Objekt’s RA mix a month later.
Debiasing is a stunning reimagining of trance, at present possibly still the uncoolest sound in music (other than, I dunno, rock and roll.) Designed to elevate the effects of ecstasy using huge breakdowns, buildups, and drops, trance is ideal for attracting superficial newcomers to raves and selling out huge arenas, which in turn makes it unpopular with hipsters, who consider it obvious and wet. Barker, unconcerned with what’s cool, like all the coolest people, is the latest artist to hint that trance just might return to favor. Among his contemporaries are Lorenzo Senni, who has been deconstructing trance’s overblown glee since 2012, Nina Kraviz, always unafraid of walloping trance anthems in her DJing, and Courtesy, who this year curated an exemplary compilation of entranced techno from Copenhagen on her new label, Kulør.
These examples are outliers: trance is by no means officially back just yet, but fans will be encouraged by signs of other ‘90s rave tropes being re-accepted into club culture, little rays of light in an otherwise dark landscape. The acid pound of gabba has lolloped onto the Discogs pages of Lorenzo Senni’s label Presto!? (check Gabber Eleganza’s brilliant No Sleep #1 EP) and Nina Kraviz’ Trip (check their recent compilations.) Hardcore seems to be intermittently poking its head in, paid tribute by labels like art-aud and Craigie Knowes and on Shed’s recent EP as The Higher.
The popularisation of breakbeats (first introduced in the hardcore era) in some of the year’s biggest records — think Skee Mask, LSDXOXO, Overmono, Aphex Twin—appears to be having a positive impact on the drum & bass scene. Though the heads might grumble about unwanted attention, it’s refreshing to see new drum & bass labels like Western Lore and 7th Storey Projects surging to prominence, while Metalheadz also had a promising year that included an excellent debut album from Blocks & Escher. Also well worth a listen are releases from Current Value, Spectrasoul, DBridge, and anything played by veteran of the scene Doc Scott, who said in September that his sets include more jungle now than they did in the ‘90s.
In the absence of truly original new genres, I welcome the return of trance, gabba, hardcore, and jungle. All are products of rave—in contrast to house and techno, which were incubated in clubs—and all are characteristically dancey, celebratory sounds, bringing with them a sense of fun that often feels absent in contemporary club music. If you’re like me, you’re probably ambivalent towards the unremitting darkness-bordering-on-misery hanging over nights out in many of the world’s most famous clubs. Of course, there’s often beauty in the dark, but there’s plenty of beauty in the light too. Why should you have to choose between the two?
It’s Okay to Cry
Like a hand on the shoulder of a troubled scene inhibited by Berghain bravado, SOPHIE told us “It’s Okay to Cry” on track one of her debut album, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-insides. Upon its release in June, critics and fans lapped up every tear-jerking chorus as though they hadn’t heard a pop song in years. We reacted similarly to Yves Tumor’s Safe in the Hands of Love. Both SOPHIE and Tumor sound brash and sometimes ugly, but crucially tap into a strange, teenage vulnerability in a way I haven’t heard since the Klaxons.
Are pop and techno really that different anyway? It’s an interesting question to ponder while enveloped in the comforting blanket of DJ Koze’s fourth album Knock Knock, which was released in early summer. Koze was once a child of Kompakt, the record label that first popularised the brand of ambient techno now purveyed by Dial and Northern Electronics; yet Knock Knock could hardly be further from melancholic minimal, blending 4/4 rhythms with ski-season house riffs, funk-laden guitar solos, singing(!), and sniffly ambient. Listening is like smiling through a face full of tears, putting the vapid, soulless EDM clogging up the charts to shame.
Koze, SOPHIE, and Tumor reminded us that the pop spectrum is, of course, a circle. That the most forward-thinking art doesn’t have to hide its feelings, and that music with singalong choruses doesn’t have to be shit. Would it not be great if artists like these, along with Arca, FKA Twigs, and co, were to usher in a new era of innovative, chart-smashing pop music?
I won’t be holding my breath, but there are indications of hope. Two months after Safe in the Hands of Love, fans and critics were charmed once more by the wonderful dance-pop of Robyn’s Honey, which broke into the US Billboard Top 40 (just). Mainstream pop is also proving an increasingly fruitful source of inspiration for the left-field. Warp duo patten have been dishing out free "Re-edits" packages for nearly five years, remixing the likes of Sade, Rihanna and—this year—Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator. Lee Gamble’s UIQ label, meanwhile, recently released rkss’ endlessly imaginative EDM dissection DJ Tools, before the artist published her own free remix package Illegal Materials, offering stripped down interpretations of Daft Punk, Alice Deejay, and bloody Swedish House Mafia.
Free movement across borders
One area crying out for external influence and cross-pollination is mainstream hip-hop, where artists sound increasingly obsessed with themselves. Does rap’s current chart domination signify a new golden era? Hmmm. At present the period’s presiding plotline is the spat between Drake and Kanye West, two pop stars battling for rap’s top spot despite neither of them being particularly good rappers. Other than one great track, the artistic legacy of all the Twitter tedium is a debate over how long an album should be: in short, Drake put out a long album and Kanye put out five short ones (including Pusha T’s DAYTONA, a brilliant but pointlessly truncated record), both in an attempt to maximize their own personal public image. Whoever’s side you’re on, it suggests a genre running out of ideas.
Far more interesting than rap’s main men are those invading the scene from leftfield, combining influences from both ends of the pop spectrum. Cardi B has become a star, blending Latin swang with a trap snarl on Invasion of Privacy. Brainfeeder made a case for being the best oddball label around on their 10th anniversary compilation album, combining everything from hip-hop to lo-fi house to electric jazz, while Georgia Anne Muldrow’s poppy trap-soul debut on the label further broadened their horizons. Death Grips continue to writhe between mosh-rap, thrash-noise, and gothic disco on their sixth studio album, Year of the Snitch. Best of all, JPEGMAFIA, a product of the Soundcloud rap craze that also made XXXTentacion and Lil Peep popular, dropped the internet-rap opus Veteran, featuring as many cut-and-paste samples as a Oneohtrix Point Never record and beats powerful enough to destroy in any club.
And in Britain, the injection of bashment and afro-beat into UK rap has made the scene friendlier to both the charts and the dancefloor. Moreover, London’s jazz scene is enjoying its most vibrant period in decades too, thanks to a proliferation of influences from grime, ambient, reggae, and house. If 2018 taught us anything, it’s the value of internet eclecticism; that different genres of music have different qualities, that there’s little to gain in isolating one corner of music from foreign influence.
Rap’s album-length ditherings indicate a wider concern too: that 2018 may go down as the year the album died. Stats show that even the most popular albums of today are rarely streamed in their entirety. One of this year's biggest questions is this: has Spotify created an era of singles and playlists?
The aforementioned weariness occupying many of our beloved artists is perhaps no surprise in an industry over which the specter of a Spotify monopoly looms more ominously than ever before. As Spotify users shared their personal streaming stats on social media recently, Tweets from a number of independent artists made it clear who comes off worst from streaming services. “2018 Wrapped / ur streams 500k / ur fans 295k / countries 65 / ur bnk statement £15,” said Scratcha DVA. “Buy records buy downloads keep the music / don’t stream its crap,” said Zomby. Skee Mask was unequivocal: “fuck spotify fuck spotify fuck spotify fuck spotify [ad infinitum/280 character limit].”
It’s worrying to see artists intimating that they can’t make enough money to sustain themselves from their music. As Barker tweeted, in the future DJs might be left with nothing to play because producers all had to get day jobs. If artists can’t survive, records like Debiasing will no longer be made. 2019 will mark the end of a troubling, revolutionary decade in the music industry, and a year in which we all, collectively, must think of new ways to save it.
A Final Thought
How to save it is by no means simple, but a decent first step would be for us, the music fans, not to think of the challenges facing today’s musicians as their problem. If Spotify means artists can’t make enough money to survive from their work, we need to look for alternative ways to consume music. If techno sounds miserable and stagnant, we need to give techno artists some reasons to be happy. If there’s a lack of innovation, a dearth of radical new scenes and a growing number of exciting artists resorting to chart trash, it’s because we aren’t going to gigs, because we aren’t buying enough records, and because we aren’t making it worthwhile for labels, clubs, and musicians to stick to their own crazy ideas.
Anyone hoping for exciting new directions has reasons to be optimistic; there’s been plenty of frighteningly good music released this year. However, if we want the music industry’s situation to improve, it’s vital that we recognize a collective responsibility. As Barker says, if music stops being a career, musicians will just get other jobs. But if there’s no music at all, it’s the listeners who will suffer most.