Ghost in the 404: The Best Dance and Electronic Music of 2019

Ghost in the 404 evaluates the year in electronic and dance music as Sam Ribakoff counts down his favorites.
By    December 18, 2019

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Sam Ribakoff spins the decks like he’s on the Caesar’s Palace payroll.

25. Moodymann – Sinner

I gotta be radically honest with y’all, I did not like this Moodymann record when it first came out. I thought it was boring and kind of half-assed, so I ignored it rather than trying to bad mouth one of the best house music producers in the game. Before I go any farther, I just have to qualify that I love Moodymann; who doesn’t though, right? His name itself evokes his sound of midnight purple meditative grooves meant for 2 a.m., or that long ride home from the function. I think what I immediately reacted to when I heard Sinner was how it was unlike that classic Moodymann sound. The drums on some songs are outright distorted and boom bap, sometimes only accompanied by a distant single synth chord, a crunchy Moog bass line, and Moodymann’s rapping that kind of sounds like Moodymann’s aural tribute to Prince.

There are moments when Moodymann plays with the listener, like on “Got Me Coming Back Rite Now,” where a classic Moodymann groove is weaved in and out of a distorted beat, like Moodymann is mixing two records in and around each other. He knows we want it, but what brought myself back to Sinner was tracks like “If I Gave You My Love,” which like “Got Me Coming Back Rite Now,” plays with audience expectations, but refuses to wholly cater to fan nostalgia. This is Moodymann the artist, inching forward and playing around with his sound, not Moodymann the museum figure.       

24. Cakedog – Doggystyle

As Cakedog, Leland Jackson makes footwork music that sounds like if Battle Groundz was hosted on Deep Space Nine. This is futuristic footwork with its arms reaching towards the stars and its feet firmly planted in the wild experimentation of early juke/footwork music. It’s music made for footwork dancers and music you can imagine modern dancers interpretive dancing and writhing around. This record is mixed with so much space that it can feel vast — with every drum crystal clear — and barraged with percussion and samples in the next (see “Move It.”) The samples are so odd that it takes you a minute to digest them, as everything sounds like it’s in conflict until it’s repeated so often that your mind melds around the contradictions. This isn’t Chicago footwork music, it’s one mad scientist’s own tribute to the past and hope for the future.

23. Florian Kupfer – 4Ever

Florian Kupfer effortlessly treads the line between boring lo-fi house aesthetics and immaculate, grimy, twilight tech-house bangers. On this short EP, tracks like “Why,” with its floating backing chords and almost jazzy breakbeat tread that line ever so dearly, and come out the other side — just in time for the complete immersion into lo-fi house that is “English Mercedes.”    

22. Gooooose – Rusted Silicon

Between Chengdu and Shanghai, China has one of the most interesting music scenes in the world that’s only just beginning to be discovered outside of the country. Throughout Rusted Silicon, Shanghai-based producer Gooooose [that’s goose with three extra ‘o’s’] moves from hyper-fast gabber drum and bass music to glitchy lounge electronica with 808 blasts dedicated to the element silicon, the driving force behind semiconductor electronics like computers and cell phones. It’s music to take a bullet train to.   

21. Laurel Halo – DJ Kicks

Every year there’s multiple DJ Kicks compilations that can go on lists like this, but I really love the fake out that Laurel Halo does on her turn at the helm of the series. Starting out with her own track, a kind of smoky freakout at a jazz club, very similar to the vibe of her previous record, 2018’s Raw Silk Uncut Wood, but as soon as that track fades out Halo rams into an hour long set of industrial style hard techno that can be succinctly summarized with just the name of the second artist on the comp, Stallone the Reducer. This is minimal hard, distorted, mechanically grungy drums, and that’s about it. It’s music where every new percussion tick added, every new electronic giggle, sounds like a glorious revelation.    

20. Sage Caswell – Evil Twin

According to the liner notes accompanying Evil Twin, the album is partially inspired by Sage Caswell moving from L.A., a city where he was an integral part of the underground dance music scene, to Madison, Wisconsin. On Evil Twin, you can feel it. The record starts out with hazy melancholy ambient tracks, then slowly transitions into the electro-ambient-techno that Caswell is known for, all surrounded by this marine layer, or smog. “In search of home and a birthplace….” says a voice on “Way Out West,” “To try to figure it out would ruin it. I want to leave it like a mine of gold. You know?… I don’t want to understand it in a way that will exploit its pureness. So I just leave it.”

19. DJ Lag – Uhuru

DJ Lag, one of the creators of the South African gqom sound, takes the opportunity presented by a co-sign from dance music’s Christopher Columbus, Diplo, via a subsidiary of his label Mad Decent, to sharpen the edges of gqom’s industrial grimy dance sound even further into what he calls uThayela, corrugated iron in Zulu. There’s no better description of the music than that. The tracks on this record sound like dancing in a hard hat to the sounds of emergency alarms at your job at the power plant, or throwing rocks at Elysium. Dance music for the Anthropocene.  

18. Brown Irvin – Run Me That Soul

Brown Irvin, also known as Compton’s AshTreJinkins, gets better and weirder with every release. As the Brown Irvin moniker, AshTre explores the dubbier side of techno, house, and beat music, condensing them all together into a thick metallic soup. Listening to the two tracks on this EP is like being immersed at the bottom of that soup, as light flickers above your head on the surface, safe in alien spaces surrounded by things and sounds half remembered.  

17. Sisso – Mateso 

Mohamed Hamza Ally, who goes by the stage name Sisso, makes east African gabber music that sounds like fast forwarding through your entire mp3 collection at once. Based out of Dar-Es-Salam, Tanzania, Sisso makes Singeli music, a hyper fast, often hitting 200 to 300 BPMs, style of dance music apparently made for over a decade now in Dar-Es-Salam. Made from minutely chopped breakneck samples of Tanzanian and Arab music, the music on Mateso is a relentless barrage of ideas, but unlike European gabber music, there’s rhythm and musicality here created by the wild ways Sisso freaks the machinery they’re using to create this music.         

16. Sela – Unapologetically You

Click the above link and listen to Unapologetically You fast, it might not last. Sela is a Vallejo-based producer notorious for deleting whole albums from his Bandcamp page [including one with the unfortunate title Make America Juke Again], making them nearly impossible to find. Which is a real shame, because Sela is one of the most interesting producers of the last decade. Over numerous projects he’s developed this mix of footwork, beat music, vaporwave, and ambient music to create an ethereal, melancholic, time bending music that’s a style all his own. Over a couple of since vaporized albums, Sela played with adding in house music beats, or emphasizing the ambient bent, or footwork bent of his music, but Unapologetically You is a really fine synthesis of all those sounds into a coherent, swirling vortex of ASMR whispers, ghostly R&B samples, languorous keys, and even what sounds like a Bhad Bhabie sample towards the end. Only Sela could pull it off and make it sound so melancholy.      

15. Juke Bounce Werk Presents JBDUBZ Vol. 7

Juke Bounce Werk is an L.A. treasure. They’re a collective of footwork/juke producers and dancers that have made L.A. the second home of footwork/juke music outside of the music’s hometown of Chicago. Their what seems like semi-annual collections of juke/footwork tracks from friends and collective members is a great way to familiarize yourself with some of the music’s rising producers, and this year’s collection, JBDUZ Vol.7, is one of the best the collective have ever put together. Just listen to Compton’s “10 Toes Down,” a footwork rework of Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel,” and try not to smile. The Juke Bounce Werk compilations have always been fun and funny, but the collective took it up a notch this year without sacrificing the quality of the tracks. I mean, just listen to DJ SWISHA’s rework of Theo Parrish’s “Footwork,” retitled by DJ SWISHA as “Hope Theo Don’t Hear Dis.” I hope he does though, dance music can afford to loosen up a bit.   

14. DJ Haram – Grace

DJ Haram has one of the best DJ stage names of the decade, not to mention one of the best records of the year. Grace is filled with ideas, most noticeably mashing together American club music with Middle Eastern rhythms and pitch shifted samples, but somehow DJ Haram keeps even the tracks with gun shot percussion noises in it feeling light and airy, like the production is floating just above the dance floor, especially on tracks like “Body Count,” which I can only hope is a tribute to Ice-T’s thrash metal band.    

13. Channel Tres – Black Moses

Without a doubt, the most enjoyable record to listen to released this year. The tracks on Black Moses, somewhere in between DJ Quik and DJ Battlecat’s G-Funk and deep house, are quick and lusciously slick, with just enough time, and ambiance, on the EP to perfectly soundtrack a quick trip down Central Ave in an El Camino during the magic hour.   

12. Meitei – Komachi 

If you wanted to know what kind of music gentle Japanese ghosts from Miyazaki movies that come to life in a moonlit country bog make, then go stream this Meitei record. Using chopped and echoed samples from old Japanese folk records, snatches of nocturnal field recordings, and subtle flicks of percussion sounds, like blocks of wood brushing up against each other in the wind, Meitei makes music for the moments when the natural world seems mystic and supernatural.

11. Electric Acholi Kaboom from Northern Uganda

I swear to all that is holy, Fruity Loops music production software, especially ripped, bootlegged, and pirated versions of the software, has done millions of times more good in the world than hundreds of half assed and corrupt corporate philanthropy programs. Case one of 100,000, the music on this compilation. Alcholi music was normally performed by bands of up to 25 musicians during weddings in Northern Uganda, but during the Ugandan Civil War and the ongoing violence in northern Uganda, few people had the resources to hire or even assemble that many musicians, so young producers in the northern Ugandan cities of Lira and Gulu started making Alcholi music on Fruity Loops. The tracks on this compilation trace the genre’s sound from 2003 to 2008 as producers sped Alcholi music up to ridiculous tempos, overloaded the music with every percussion instrument in the Fruity Loops library, and created a truly hypnotic style of electronic music that might take a minute to situate yourself in, but after that, you can’t help but get lost in it.    

10. Ahnnu – The Dreaming Arrow

My favorite Ahnnu story was related to me by a friend who saw him play a tribute show to Ras G [RIP] at Poo Bah records in Pasadena. In between a series of Ras’ friends from the beat making scene playing great, loud, dub and hip hop inspired beats, Ahnnu got on and played his quiet, contemplative, experimental electronica, and the MC of the night got on and tried to hype up the crowd with the same bombast as the previous beats by saying something like “Oh shit! That’s what my man’s mind really be like!” Dear reader, I want to be as excited about The Dreaming Arrow as that MC was that night. Ahnnu makes experimental electronic music like no other, and Longform Editions, a record label out of Sydney Australia that gives producers the space to record long, continuous, experimental tracks, is the perfect space for Ahnnu’s style of expansive environmental ambient music to stretch out and breath.

Throughout the 22 minutes of The Dreaming Arrow, the track is at times pensive and ready to explode with muted synths and bass rumbling just under the surface, to open soundscapes filled with gurgling water, hushed bird sounds, and mumbling synths reflecting off of each other. Like all ambient music, there’s a time and a place for it, but if you give it a chance, you might be surprised how immersive and enjoyable it can be. 

9. Yu Su – Roll with the Punches

Downtempo/chillwave/Balearic music isn’t dead! Yu Su makes soft neon green music for doing nothing but contemplating the paint melting off the walls or waiting for a delayed bus on a sweltering summer day. The music on Roll with The Punches is light and airy, with rising and falling humid summer night synths, and gentle simple Linn drums, and syntenic bass and plucked instrument meandering through the mix. It’s music with soft and mystical undertones like an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film, meaning it often switches fast from languid scenes into absurdity and just as fast into visceral pleasures that you didn’t even know you desired.    

8. Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990

If you don’t blast the volume once you press play on the first track of this album, “Still Space,” by Satoshi Ashikawa, you might think you missed something. The blinging synth on this track is so soft, so delicate, so gradually unfolding, like the audio equivalent of some rare flower blooming in the winter, that it makes you lean into the track, take notice and change your expectations of what music should be. Compiled by Spencer Doran of Visible Cloaks this comp collects tracks from the heyday of Japanese “environmental music,” slow moving, wistful, ambient music that sounds like sentient fauna itself created it. This is music without structure, without lateral movement, without any real tension or resolution of conflict, this is music that gets pains in its neck from staring at stars, music made for slow winter mornings.        

7. AFK and Bludwork – Loyalty in Service 

House music south of the 10 freeway is alive and well. AFK and Bludwork make aquamarine G-funk, as inspired by Warren G and Egyptian Lover as it is by Larry Heard’s languid deep house sound. Music that sounds like the light of the sunset refracted through the toxic exhaust of the L.A. harbor. It’s a sound that’s growing among DJ and producers in L.A. that is shaping up to be a uniquely L.A. sound that no other L.A. artists captured as well as AFK and Bludwork on this album.     

6. The Caretaker – Everywhere at the End of Time: Stage 6 

Everywhere at the End of Time: Part 6 marks the end of a 20-year project by British artist Leyland Kirby to make a chronological soundtrack to severe dementia. At the beginning of the project Kirby sampled, looped, and drowned old British ballroom and white jazz music in echo and reverb, creating haunting atmospheres that recalled scenes from The Shining. Now at the end of the series, all semblance of melody, and maybe even music, is gone, the four 21 minute tracks on this record are all ominous clouds of bellowing dark ambiance wrapped in in static hiss, with samples familiar to listeners of the previous stages floating through suddenly for seconds, only to be enveloped back into the cloud of dark ambiance supposed to connote the final stages of dementia. It’s harrowing, and terrifying, but the final track, the only one that includes noticeable instruments in the form of one long continuous church organ chord, and eventually a creepy children’s choir, offers a sort of grace after a long heartbreaking journey.  

5. Ras G & the Afrikan Space Program – Dance of the Cosmos

Ras G was constantly moving his music forward, going simultaneously deeper and farther out with every release right until his tragic and untimely passing this year. The music on Dance of the Cosmos is some of the best, most innovative, house music made this year. It’s house grooves loaded with African percussion instruments and dub aesthetics, that like all of Ras’ music, calls back towards the long history of great black music, as much as it pushes forward towards future great black music. You know somewhere out in the cosmos Ras and Sun Ra are bumping this album in their spaceship.    

4. Hanna – I Needed/Intercession, on Behalf

Unlike Ras G’s genre experimentations these two tracks follow a pre-set pattern of gospel-house tracks that’s been laid out for decades now, but like a Burt Bacharach song, they’re just perfectly crafted, immaculate cookie cutter tracks that are irresistible. Using repetitive gospel tinged samples and perfect house rhythms with bubbly bass lines, Hanna created two rapturously fun, simple, tracks, and sometimes that’s all you really want from dance music.     

3. Kelela – Aquaphoria

Just as ambient music is beginning to crest into something like the electronic music mainstream, R&B singer Kelela, ever the tastemaker, and producer/DJ Asmara jumped out in front of the crowd and let everybody know what time it is. Ostensibly a DJ mix of Asmara and Kelela’s favorite ambient music, pulling from Japanese environmental music, Music from Memory folks, and even a Jaco Pastorius solo from a Joni Mitchell live show from the 70’s, Kelela improvises vocal melodies over the music, using the spacious ambient tracks as canvases to simultaneously melt into and pull out ideas and themes only hinted at in the original tracks. Kelela takes her time with her projects, she hasn’t put out an “official” album since 2017’s Take Me Apart, but every year she pops back up with something, whether a mix like this, or a remix album, to let you know that she’s still one of the best, most creative, artists in the game right now.            

2. DJ Nate – Take Off Mode

DJ Nate came out with one of the first, and still one of the best, footwork albums released and heard outside of Chicago way back in 2010 called Da Trak Genious, full of tumbling triplet drum patters, hyper chopped and looped samples that interrogated every nook and cranny for melody, texture, and rhythm, with DJ Nate stretching and bending them in gravity defying ways. It was music made specifically for footwork dancers, which DJ Nate was at the time. But by the time the album came out, and British label Planet Mu got to releasing more and more Chicago footwork artists, DJ Nate was already off footwork, and onto making R&B tracks like “Gucci Goggles.”

While other amazing footwork DJs and producers like RP Boo and DJ Rashad were going around the world spreading the gospel of footwork, Nate was involved in a horrible accident that left him paralyzed for a number of years. Compiled from recordings made between his hospitalization and 2019, Take Off Mode sounds like a natural successor to Da Trak Genious, the drums are still tripping over themselves, the chops are still heavy, and the soul samples are still as wild, sometimes hillarious, and sometimes yearning, as they were nearly 10 years ago now when DJ Nate first stepped onto the international stage. It’s still light years ahead of what anybody else is doing.        

1. Galcher Lustwerk – Information

Call it hip-house because he’s quasi-rapping, call it deep house, because the drums bump crispy clean, the bass thumps immaculately, and the synths glide, but to me Cleveland’s Galcher Lusterk makes night music, smooth, effortless music that sees all, knows all, but somehow transcends above it all in graceful moonlight. It’s music made from an amalgamation of great black music; house, funk, hip hop, disco, techno, drum and bass, ambient, soul, jazz, and R&B, melded into one composite perfect sound. Galcher Lustwerk has been working out the kinks of this sound for a couple of years, and Information is the summation of those efforts into a nearly perfect project filled with insatiable grooves and whispered gems of lyrics, like “Another Story,” where Glacher tells us about a busy day with lyrics like, “I don’t do it for the clout, I just do it for the glory. I just drank another 40. That shit is another story.”

To project a little bit, something about this song, and that line in particular, resonated a lot with me, especially in the wake of the destruction of the O.C. Weekly a day before Thanksgiving this year. The O.C. Weekly was one of the first publications — besides the great Passion of the Weiss (thank you Jeff) — that gave me a shot to write about the music I love. One of my first freelance pieces for them was a review of a Young Thug show that I’m still really proud of, but beyond that I think the O.C. Weekly was one of the best publications in the country. It was scrappy and proudly antagonistic against the idiots, scammers, evil doers, and exploiters of Orange County, while also working hard to highlight the music, arts, and cultural scene in the O.C. that gets ignored in favor of seeing the O.C. as just the white, rich, conservative southern part of the county. It was also the last of the great alternative weeklies in California after the destruction of the L.A. Weekly by Trumpists.

As a working journalist myself, knowing that venture capitalists, inept CEOs, and fascist politicians are working hard to destroy the few newspapers and media sites left in this country that truly work to investigate corrupt and lackey leaders, expose injustices, and report on and reflect art and culture in communities so that those communities can better understand themselves, it feels like fighting against an inevitable annihilation of my profession, a profession, that when done right is a true public good. I don’t want to make this into a cheap plea for money, but that’s why it’s essential to support the few papers and sites still doing essential reporting, like this site.

Even if there’s only five papers left in the country by the end of the next decade, like the laid off L.A. Weekly reporters, and surely the laid off O.C. Weekly reporters, us journalists will continue writing and reporting, because, while we should be making livable wages, a lot of us have journalism and love for our communities in our blood, and a need to write another story and not let the evil doers win out in the end.                   

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