Slam on the CDJ’s 25 Best Sets of 2020

Michael McKinney explores the greatest DJ sets of a year where no one sensible went dancing.
By    January 25, 2021

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Where does the DJ go in a year without dancefloors? The art has long been tied to late nights and dark rooms, but as Covid-19 shuttered clubs across the world, selectors moved online at an unprecedented rate. Instagram, Twitch, and Minecraft all lit up with low-bit streams and brand new festivals, all offering their own version of dancefloor communities. Many DJs had their primary source of income shut off indefinitely, but just as many tried to find ways to make it work despite everything turning inside out.

Despite everything, in other words, the rave kept going. It’s tempting to mythologize the club, especially when they’re harder to come by, but plenty of artists bottled lightning from their home studios this year. This list houses twenty-five of the most electrifying transmissions from a deeply unusual twelve months. They showcase artists working at the top of their game, whether they spin deep house and techno records, hypermodern club tools, otherworldly ambiance, or anything that falls between the cracks. Summarizing a year of mixes is a more or less impossible task, but with any luck, attempting to do so will shine a light on the number of thrilling paths the format continues to take.

Here are some of the best DJ sets 2020 had to offer. Michael McKinney

25. 33EMYBW – Dekmantel Podcast 298

On her Dekmantel podcast entry, 33EMYBW—née Wu Shanmin—shows off what makes her style of club music so singular. This is a skittering and claustrophobic sound, with hyper-fast drums and swarming synthesizers. (Fittingly, she calls it “limb dance.”) Her ultra-precise sound design never quite settles down, moving between genre signposts with such fluidity that they start to blur together. As Dekmantel Podcast 298 mutates for the umpteenth time, its busted-machinery rhythms and hundred-limbed percussion starts to reveal an alien logic.

24. Kilbourne – DISCWOMAN 94 x Kilbourne

If the ravers are to be believed, hardcore will never die. Take Kilbourne’s DISCWOMAN entry as proof. This is ninety minutes of the stuff, all slamming kicks and hair-raising synthesizers and ever rising BPMs. The mix offers a steamrolling ride through innumerable strains of scorching dance music, with plenty of original productions slotting between amp-busting rap, apocalyptic techno, and head-spinning gabber. She continually pushes the energy level; each track is scuzzier, harder, and faster than the previous. DISCWOMAN 94 is a breathless and maddeningly wild survey of Brooklyn’s modern hardcore scene.

23. Pom Pom – pom pom 20 20 / pom pom 20 18

Thanks to a long-running series of austere and unmarked EPs, Pom Pom has slowly turned into appointment listening for minimal techno’s most devout fans. pom pom 20 20 and pom pom 20 18 offer two more windows into the project’s trademark sound: half blackened techno, half foreboding ambient music. It’s a striking combination. The grooves, all sleek and minimal, puncture the chilled stillness without breaking the spell. This is techno at its most glacial and extraterrestrial; if you peer closely enough, the pitch-black tones reveal a thousand colors.

22. upsammy – Bleep Mix #122

As upsammy, Thessa Torsing weaves synthesizers into welcoming, playful, and enveloping tapestries—warm-blanket IDM, if you will. On her mix for Bleep, she works in the same territory but complicates it, moving from gentle undulations to rollicking rhythms.It starts out slowly, all slow-motion acid techno and squelchy downtempo, but it slowly picks up speed as Torsing adds scuttled breakbeats and wobbling basslines into the mix. By the end, she’s working at light speed, mixing painstakingly precise rhythms without breaking a sweat.

21. Big Scraps – Now That’s Wot I Call Drill (Side A / Side B)

On Now That’s Wot I Call Drill, Big Scraps pulls off an impressive balancing act, digging into the liminal spaces of London’s most exciting rap scene. They mix with a documentarian’s touch, moving from prime-time pearl-clutching to incisive lyricism and darkening both in the process. It’s a striking blend: the racist fearmongering makes the genre’s characteristically dark sound sound downright funereal; Scraps’s selections underline just how brutal that rhetoric is. Now That’s Wot I Call Drill collages perspectives and sounds to make a mix that blurs the lines between autobiography, fiction, and collective imagination.

20. Ambient Babestation Meltdown – LT Podcast 114

As Ambient Babestation Meltdown, Rachael Williams practices a curious alchemy: she blends bleary drone and ambient recordings with whispered come-ons inspired by work she did for an adult entertainment hotline. It’s a project with a wry sense of humor, all greyscale sonics and quietly unnerving vocals. Her entry for Lobster Theremin’s podcast series uses the same approach, crafting a foggy and disorienting world of purring electronics; whenever Williams’s voice penetrates the haze, it only deepens the confusion. It’s a queasy trip, toeing the line between alien beauty, unsettled sexuality, and skin-crawling discomfort.

19. Tzusing – RA.741

Tzusing recorded two sets for Resident Advisor this year; the first, intended to “reflect the mood we have collectively felt the past year,” was never released. Instead, he turned in RA.741, a wild-eyed mix of dancefloor melters. (It was recorded live in August.) It’s a stunning pile-up of rubberneckers: outrageous edits, outré club tools, and mecha-dystopian techno are the order of the hour. Throughout RA.741, Tzusing moves fast and hot, jumping between decades and continents with a veteran’s ease and an anarchistic glee. 

18. DJ Perception – RA.737

UK garage’s renaissance continued through 2020, in no small part thanks to a smattering of exciting new labels pushing the sound. But the best mix of the sound came from someone slightly older: DJ Perception, a veritable guru of the scene with unrivaled crates. His Resident Advisor set is an exultant ride through UK garage old and new, packed with chunky basslines and skipping drums. It’s a flex, to be sure—the mix is strictly composed of unreleased dubplates and forthcoming productions—but it’s more than just that. On RA.737, DJ Perception rolls up shuffling drums, decades of timelines, and sunkissed belters into a contagiously joyful celebration of UK garage.

17. Clemency – CNCMIX010

In her mix for Club Night Club, Clemency constructed a universe of trapdoors and shattered glass. Much of the thrill of CNCMIX010 comes from its number of screeching left turns—rumbling halftime giving way to scorching jungle, hyper-precise drum-and-bass shapeshifting into alien dubstep. No matter the sound, though, the approach remains. This is club music rendered as pitch-black and askew as possible; it is exactingly complex turning clinical or exhausting over the course of its runtime. CNCMIX010’s contortions dig deep into club music’s darkest sounds in the process, an unknowable pile of machinery sparks to life.

16. Ziúr – Crack Mix 331

The most thrilling parts of Ziúr’s mixing are her curatorial instincts and wild-eyed unpredictability. It’s hard to know what style she’ll jump to next, but there’s always a throughline that makes even the sharpest jumps clear in retrospect. On her mix for Crack, she concocts a characteristically riotous hour, moving from nu-footwork to breakneck gqom, bass-blasted rap selections, and turgid hand-drum workouts. It’s an icy and relentless hour that maneuvers between countless sounds, delivering haymaker after haymaker with the grace of a well-oiled battering ram.

15. Tim Reaper – On Cue / RA.757 / Truancy Volume 269

After spending over a decade of honing his craft, Tim Reaper is finally getting his dues. The jungle don has an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre’s history but a relentlessly new-school approach to production; his sound jumps between decades, tempos, and moods with reliably thrilling acuity. Three of his mixes from this year—for DJ Mag, Resident Advisor, and Truants—showed that wide-ranging and laser-sharp approach in white-hot detail. The approach is the same each time: rip-roaring drums, screaming blends, and exacting precision. Each of the three sets lands hard and fast, making for three slamming rave-ups spanning five hours. Reaper hardly needs a coronation at this point, but here, he’s got three.

14. Roza Terenzi – RA.756

In a year when dancefloors around the world ground to a halt, it’s no surprise that trance underwent (another) revival: the style is dance music as pure escapism; it strains towards the kind of elation that clubs weren’t able to offer. It’s similarly unsurprising, then, that Roza Terenzi’s dip into the style is so resoundingly successful. Given two hours, she tunnels deep into the intersecting worlds of techno and trance music, and the result is an endlessly replayable mix of peak-time energy and sun-blasted grooves. The ever-present four-on-the-floor provides the steady pulse, tracks melt into each other again and again, and everything else stretches ever higher into the sky.

13. Josey Rebelle – Josey in Space

Josey in Space finds the wunderkind DJ connecting Black musical histories with ease, jumping across continents and moods without breaking a sweat. After setting the tone with Tenesha’ the Wordsmith’s “I Dream So Loud” (“I dream so loud / My dreams reverberate in my womb / My children are born / Rejecting statistics”), she moves into an hour of defiantly joyous dance music, stuff defined by its ever-beating heart even in the most heated moments. This results in all sorts of thrilling blends and selections; she moves from Rum & Black’s rip-roaring acid into Loraine James’s openhearted melancholia and makes it seem wholly natural. On Josey in Space, Rebelle takes the old trope of DJ-as-storyteller and flips it on its head: by crumbling so many forms of electronic music into a shapeshifting mass, she’s letting the million histories of dance music spill out over the decks.

12. Avalon Emerson – DJ-Kicks

Avalon Emerson has cultivated a reputation as a sly and genre-averse DJ, one liable to throw anything into the mix as long as its grooves run deep enough. Her entry in the long-running DJ-Kicks series serves as proof: bookended by a Magnetic Fields cover and her own remix of Austra’s dreamy synth-pop belter “Anywayz,” it’s packed with fittingly melodic tunes, playful rhythms, and winking left turns. Her wide-lens approach to dance music is on full display here; Emerson teases out the connective tissue between spaghetti-western techno, slow-motion breakbeats, jagged mid-’00s dance-punk, and plenty in between. On DJ-Kicks, Emerson pulls off yet another routine of aesthetic acrobatics and consistently sticks the landing.

11. DJ Plead – Dekmantel Podcast 271

As DJ Plead, Jarred Beeler has helped lead dance music’s headlong charge into the lopsided, polyrhythmic, and wildly exploratory world of hard drum. His Dekmantel podcast is as good an entry point as any: he takes traditional and hypermodern Arabic sounds, ranging from dabke to dubstep, and intermingles them with slinking house and UK funky records; he piles off-kilter drum rhythms into delightfully off-balance towers of snares before toppling them in entirely unexpected ways. The mix repeatedly sheds its own skin, but Plead’s selections are consistently shot through with joy and a sense of wonder. Dekmantel Podcast 271 is an auditory Matryoshka doll, a jubilant pile-up of hypermodern club tools, and a delightfully off-kilter vision of dance music’s future.

10. Rupture – RA.725

On their set for Resident Advisor, Manta and Double O—the duo behind Rupture, one of London’s key drum and bass hotspots—show off their decade-spanning and style-agnostic approach to the genre. Rupture is defined less by stylistic sensibilities, and that’s the case here, too. RA.725 moves from sprightly and punchy drum workouts to gnarled and frenetic selections and back again, threading a huge range of styles without breaking stride. The pair mix at a scorching pace, which is fitting: the drums rarely let up, threatening to boil over no matter how many forms they take. With RA.725, Rupture capture the present, history, and futures of drum and bass into one barnstorming session.

9. SHERELLE – Dekmantel Podcast 285 / Essential Mix

After first catching international attention in 2019, SHERELLE had a banner year. Her freshly minted label, Hooversound Recordings, is packed with essential club tools; she got on the cover of DJMag; her residency on BBC Radio 1 is vital listening. Her two best sets from this year show off the style that got her noticed: high-speed, white-knuckle footwork, jungle, and drum and bass, whirlwinding decades, styles, and madcap percussion into a singular blur. Her Dekmantel entry, intended as a “massive fuck you to the people who didn’t want to see me on their fave ‘techno’ festival,” applies this approach to slamming drum and bass tinged with defiant joy. Her Essential Mixthe BBC’s favorite of the year—works in the same area, but tosses in blazing jungle and fast-and-loose footwork. Taken as a pair, they show one of London’s best working at the top of her game.

8. Slikback – RA.729

An all-originals set makes complete sense for Slikback. The Kampalan producer has honed in on a singular sound: corroded and crumpled synthesizers, staggering drum programming, and walls of noise. RA.729 reveals the full power of this blown-out aesthetic. His drums hit like horror-flick heart-in-throat thumps, amplified and moving in quadruple-time; the top-end is, more often than not, a sheet of screaming noise. It’s a pitch-black and unrelentingly heavy combination with enough gravitational pull to warp anything that crosses its path: sub-rattling trap turned into a harrowing and hollowed-out thing, gqom with locust-gnawed wiring. Given just forty minutes, Slikback plants his flag on a pile of industrial-din sonics and launches it into space.

7. LABOUR – Fact Mix 786

LABOUR’s music is built upon striking, if supposed, juxtapositions: the project combines Kurdish musical traditions with sheets of noise and dumbstruck beauty with unadulterated horror. The duo’s mix for Fact Magazine, released on the heels of their debut album, shows the pair conjuring black holes from this combination. The harsher selections—metallic scrambles, screaming walls of synthesizers, glacial drone—only underline how haunting the folk-music selections are, all closely miked vocals, slowly unfurling melodies, and open air. As the mix progresses, any genre delineations start to melt away, replaced by an otherworldly and disorienting energy. Fact Mix 786 lingers long after its last notes disappear, slipping through the fingers but seeping deep into the marrow.

6. Mr. Scruff – DJ-Kicks

Mr. Scruff sets the tone for his DJ-Kicks entry early: fifteen seconds of emcee chatter, perhaps suggesting some rough-and-tumble dancehall records, is greeted by the slow-motion psychedelia of Iona Fortune’s “Da You.” Scruff revels in left turns here, pulling at the fringes of his record collection and coming up with a mix that melts countless genres into a consistently thrilling stew. Deep and lush instrumentals, often pulled from the global South, are the order of the hour, but beyond that, anything goes. The resultant mix is both wide-open and primed for the dancefloor, finding the sweet spot between slow-burning funk and house, simmering jazz, and playfully programmed drums. On DJ-Kicks, Scruff tosses curveball after curveball to great effect: with each blend, the air gets a bit sunnier, the room a bit warmer, and the groove a bit deeper.

5. CCL & Physical Therapy – CCL x Physical Therapy (Live @ High & Tight 12/13/19)

CCL and Physical Therapy were two of 2020’s most exciting DJs, in large part thanks to the sheer range they covered: at the least, they worked with dream-pop ambiance, slinky and zonked-out club tools, late-night disco, and lovesick UK garage. Live @ High & Tight sees them pushing into a different lane entirely: here, they focus on simmering breaks, wonky bass music, and low-heat house. At three hours, it’s a masterclass in patient mixing; what starts as an ambient-techno blur picks up steam until it’s a pile-up of screaming breakbeat and house selections. It’s more or less impossible to tell who’s mixing when, but that points to the session’s greatest joy: this is two DJs at the top of their game pushing each other ever further into their crates.

4. IRL & Choozey – Enough is More Than a File

On Enough Is More Than a File, IRL & Choozey conjure a flickering luminescence and shroud if in a dense fog. They mix like they’re flipping between channels on a busted FM transmitter, jumping from radio chatter to new-wave jam sessions and sludgy, glitched-up R&B. The discordant churn eventually reveals a kind of dream logic, collaging ambient music, found-sound poetry recitations, and dissolving electronics into unnervingly askew forms. Even at its most straightforward—an extended new-wave jam session, shimmering and unsettled ambiance—Enough Is More Than a File is always on the verge of collapsing entirely. It never quite does. Instead, its labyrinthine and ever-shifting blind alleys change shape yet again, leading ever deeper into the murk.

3. Objekt – Essential Mix

Speaking with Resident Advisor in 2016, Objekt went into great depth about how he organizes his USBs: tempo, genre, recency, hardness. For his debut on BBC Radio 1, that meticulous nature is balanced with an anything-goes energy; his Essential Mix is both clear-eyed and manic. Hard and fast club tools are his north star throughout—apocalyptic gabber, full-throttle breakcore, scorching walls of bass, and acidic dancehall riddims are all fair game. He spends two hours turning up the heat, moving from unmoored and pointillistic percussion numbers to earth-shattering hardcore. His selections run the gamut of modern club sounds; but Objekt makes even the most surprising blends run smooth. His Essential Mix entry is an expertly handled session of hard-and-heavy dance music that hits like a series of contained explosions.

2. HMT Hard Cru – twentyfour/seven London

It’s fitting that HMT Hard Cru’s booth at twentyfour/seven London was covered in memes. The trio’s set at the event piles up pop-culture detritus in a way that’s equal parts love letter and send-up. In their two-hour set, they leapt between genres with abandon, offering plenty of treats for the rubberneckers in the audience. DJ Assault’s ghettotech anthems set the stage for Bruce Springsteen; Wham! and Wiley tracks morph into soundsystem-melting Christmas music; Ciara and Drowning Pool and Blawan get into a high-speed pile-up; they eulogize witch house and Pimp C simultaneously. Don’t let the jokes distract too much, though: like any killer stand-up, this is expertly crafted and meticulously timed, with surgical blends and a livewire energy running through the whole thing. twentyfour/seven London is a gutbusting genre exercise, a thumbed nose directed at any dancefloor purists, and an ode to rave-ups of all kinds.

1. Trent & Dama – The Last Cocktail d’Amore @ Griessmuehle

Last January, Griessmuehle was in danger. Many of Berlin’s clubs have been on a razor’s edge for a long time, and this was the latest cut too close: Griessmuehle’s lease was set to expire at the end of the month, and the property’s new owners wanted to construct new office buildings in the club’s place. The venue ultimately shut down despite petitions and protests, but not before their owners bargained their way into one last weekend in February: one final Cocktail D’Amore in the warehouse.

Cocktail D’Amore, having run for over a decade in Berlin, had by that point become a veritable cultural institution. It garnered a reputation as one of the city’s most fantastical and welcoming parties, a monthly opportunity for deeply hedonistic and deliriously gay escapes from the 9-to-5 doldrums. (Cocktail’s first flyer, a bouquet of roses made from penises, set the tone from the start.) The event’s organizers held a strict ban on photography, but reports suggest a club that routinely achieved the kind of communal elation that dance music loves to mythologize.

The Last Cocktail d’Amore @ Griessmuehle documents this in spades. By all accounts, it’s quintessentially Cocktail: Trent and Dama, two of the club’s resident DJs, drop innumerable dancefloor bombs, blending jacking house cuts, sun-kissed disco and new wave, bubbling garage, and a million styles in between. The party was notorious for running long, with sunrises turning to sunsets and back again each month, so it’s fitting that their final transmission from Griessmuehle runs for twenty-four hours.

Much of the set’s alchemy, fittingly enough, is fueled by its setting. Trent and Dama recorded the mix live in the Cosmic Hole, a dancefloor with strict tempo guidelines. This, when stretched the mix’s Herculean length, offers the groundwork for a hypnotic stew of low-slung rhythms. Throughout The Last Cocktail d’Amore, the pair make good on that promise, maintaining a deep groove while mutating it into countless forms. It’s a minor miracle that the set stays so invigorating throughout, but the selections hold up. It’s stuffed with club-music classics, which work as both wake-up calls and screaming climaxes; they flip ‘80s pop touchstones in subversive and thrilling ways; they pile mountains of vinyl into the booth, stretching rhythms in new ways until they’ve flipped upside down.

It’s hard to say where Cocktail will go next. That’s not a new problem, nor is it insurmountable. Cocktail’s moved before, and they’ll likely move again. The last day of Trent and Dama’s residency in that Berlin warehouse still reverberates, though. The set, originally set to go twelve hours, went twice that because they couldn’t bear to leave the venue behind. The Last Cocktail d’Amore uses the foundation that made Cocktail the stuff of legend—resilient optimism, winding grooves, and an anything-goes spirit—to build a monument to a community that’s been unmoored once more. It’s a love letter tinged with melancholy, a jubilant blur for teary-eyed ravers, and a perfect way to wave a long goodbye.

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