Illustration by Dana Kim
Despite occasionally feeling like a trip through a dishwasher filled with swamp water, 2016 managed to cough up a handful of musical gems from the murk. This was not a year for muted introspection, but for throwing back your head and letting it all out—which the year's 66 best tracks certainly demonstrate. Whether they're disco screamers, candy-paint EDM nightmares, queasy mutant love ballads, or mind-melting trance weapons, the songs below trace the full spectrum of emotions—from burn-it-all-down anger, to sadness, to exuberant abandon—that made us want to dance our hearts out this year.Murlo's cleanly stripped back edit. It's a deadly interpretation of one of the year's biggest tracks, but its power lies in its sense of restraint. The London producer and remixer nudged the vocals slightly deeper in the mix, allowing his chirping synths and woozy bass to take shape around Rihanna's commanding intonation to "work, work, work." Murlo knows even he can't take this track away from Rihanna.—Jesse Weiss
Consider this: from September 3 to November 19, a song featuring two artists who nobody over the age of 18 would have previously considered a real celebrity occupied the top spot on the Billboard charts. That 12-week span was the year's longest—a full two weeks longer than its closest competitor, Drake's "One Dance." As of now, "Closer" has 610 million Spotify streams and 770 million YouTube streams—massive numbers, any way you cut it. Everyone you know has had a serious personal moment to this song at some point this year. But what's the appeal?
"Closer" is an enigma, a slippery synthesis of several prominent teen trends from Halsey's Lana Del Rey-lite Americana to the Chainsmokers' Flume-ish synth flourishes. The beat swoops and dips on a pleasant trampoline ride of SoundCloud pop-trap tropes, while the lyrics paint a relatable picture of middle-class ennui and temporary release. In interviews, Chainsmokers unabashedly cop to treating their music like a product, testing and exploiting market trends to optimize their brand. "With these two, music has found its very own tech bros," wroteBillboard in a famously controversial cover story. I don't think the duo's marketing savvy makes their music inherently flawed—it just means that they've adapted savvily to the current reality of the pop music marketplace, where success has less to do with an artist's charisma or star power, and more to do with how effectively their music aligns with the Spotify and Apple Music algorithms that drive viral success.
Which is to say, the Chainsmokers seem like extremely boring people, but it doesn't matter. The music industry has already become a massive Silicon Valley experiment about how people share and consume cultural information. Through a combination of serious talent and relentless resolve, the Chainsmokers have developed strategies to make this system work for them. The rest of us had better learn from their accomplishments—or get out of the way.
There's also this.—Ezra Marcus
In THUMP's interview with New Orleans-based producer Kilbourne about her 2016 EP Sourland, she explained that "Men: Parasites" was made during a time in her life in which she resented someone who'd sexually assaulted her. The track was able to signal a shift in her narrativization of the experience: "'Men:Parasites' felt like an opening to first accepting and experiencing the violence of being haunted by trauma, and then responding to it in an unapologetic, aggressive, femme way," she said. Sourland on the whole signaled a stylistic departure for the producer in its total embrace of European hardcore styles such as hardstyle and gabber, and these ferocious sounds make perfect sense on "Men: Parasites," an arsenal for the brazen process of becoming she describes. Like a Defqon.1-ready anthem—one imagines a carnivalesque, mud-soaked festival erupting in mosh pits—"Men:Parasites" conveys an irreducible compound of anger, pain, and bloodthirsty adrenaline.—Alexander Iadarola
This intoxicating remix of a Mozambican singer by a young Portuguese talent was my favorite in a year full of standouts from the scene. DJ Jio P places a gentle Tarraxinha loop under the heart-wrenching vocal, bolstering it with drums that sound like a stack of ceramic plates falling off a table and faint synth figures that swoop in the background like glowing bats. Maricoa's yearning melodies and Jio P's elegiac production illustrate the tension between the timeless intensity of young love and the bracing awareness that nothing lasts forever.—Ezra Marcus
New York-based, Ecuadorian-Lithuanian DJ Riobamba is both a talented musician and an astute political activist who has worked hard to increase Latin American visibility in the dance music world. "Hecho/Hechizo" is a complex brew of the noise, folkloric, and brujeria sounds currently cooking in the growing global bass scene. Its propulsive mix of reggaeton, samples of field recordings of earthquakes, and dark atmospheres won't keep any feet off the dancefloor.—Valeria Anzaldo
If Danny Brown's virtuosic Atrocity Exhibition is a travelogue of bad drugs, worse sex, and immutable sadness, then its frenetic centerpiece "When It Rain" is when our protagonist whirlwinds into his Detroit home. A truly Midwestern rap anthem that sonically recalls the cybernetic paranoia of classic Detroit techno and the shuddering trippiness of footwork, Brown calls out regional luminaries like Traxman and DJ Assault while conjuring the image of dancefloor-as-war zone—a place where you duck and cover when danger's present, or because that's the only way to get your ass as close to the floor as humanly possible. In the destructive, depressive maelstrom of Atrocity Exhibition, "When It Rain" is the eye of the storm, where a sense of calm only exists because everything else around you is so fucking crazy.—Larry Fitzmaurice
"Money over everything...this is the mantra of a generation living in end times," roars Ellery James Roberts (formerly of WU LYF) on this standout from his 2016 debut album as LUH. (short for Lost Under Heaven), SPIRITUAL SONGS FOR LOVERS TO SING. On "$oro," he and his bandmate and girlfriend Eboony Hoorn drench their voices in Auto-Tune and try to chant down the apocalypse."I know you're afraid that this culture is dead," sings Roberts, grappling with the spiritual void he sees at the heart of a crumbling empire. "I can't hear you over my money, babe/for all the greed in my fuckin' head." Most artists couldn't pull off this kind of bombast, but Roberts is an exception, as he and Hoorn create massive soundscapes that reflect the violent times and jagged emotions they're obsessed with. After four minutes, the song explodes into a harsh hardstyle breakdown, like a nuclear blast sweeping over a doomed civilization—a conclusion that, these days, doesn't feel particularly unexpected.—Ezra Marcus
LA-based label, radio station, and collective of rave enthusiasts Club Aerobics kicked off their series of free releases earlier this year with a hyper-energetic banger by co-founder Ducky. The three-and-a-half minute ode to working hard and partying harder took direct aim at the dancefloor, and quickly became a staple at peak-time clubs all over the world. Forget Rihanna and Drake—this is the "Work" that the dance music heads really needed.—Valeria Anzaldo
Gqom—the drippy, vibrant melange of scenes and styles emerging from suburbs of Durban, South Africa—has developed a reputation for darkness over the past couple of years. But Cruel Boyz' "Umeqo Emagqomini (Dub Mix)," from the January Sound of Durban Vol. 1 comp, is a reminder that even electronic music's gloomiest sounds can be turned into celebratory music. Wrapped around a monotonic drone that'd probably sound more at home as a horror movie cue, this track employs a collision of clucking clave lines, stuttering electronic chatters, and hopscotch drum programming as a way of ascending from the muck and mire.—Colin Joyce
Andrés, the Detroit-bred former Slum Village DJ, producer, and scratch extraordinaire, doesn't release much—certainly not as often as his legion of fans pray he would. But like most inimitably cool talents to emerge out of the Motor City, that's just how he likes it. Aside from sneaking out a remix every so often, he pretty much sticks to quietly dropping about one record a year on his own La Vida imprint. How can a guy rely so heavily on such a thin release schedule in an industry that demands the opposite? Because every record is so damn good. Unleashed right in time for the scorching rays of summer, "Mighty Tribe" is a party record right down to its core. Revolving around a few subtle soul samples—Earth, Wind & Fire and Eddie Kendricks, at that—the loopy disco beat swirls relentlessly around your membranes for nearly nine minutes, switching things up without a second's hesitation. It has a similar ethos as the roller skating rinks Andres cut his teeth on in the D: get your ass on the floor, and don't look back.—David Garber
Bass dons R.L. Grime, Skrillex, and What So Not really took the name of their latest collaboration to heart. The trio trickled out the track to the masses at a drip-feed pace, first teasing the track back in September before What So Not debuted it later that month during a show in Los Angeles. R.L. Grime then used it to close out his annual Halloween mixtape, and the day before its release, fans could call a hotline to hear it in full. "Waiting" marks the second time R.L. Grime and What So Not have teamed up—the first being the monolithic festival trap anthem "Tell Me" in 2014—and as Grime told NPR, they actually started writing both songs on the same day. With Skrillex's added involvement, however, the scale of the sequel is even more mammoth, as whirlwind builds, blaring horns, and flooring drops guarantee another grinning festival staple in the making—a concentrated dopamine hit amidst the darkness.—Krystal Rodriguez
Sitting in a hotel room with his trademark aquamarine hair twisted back with two plastic babydoll clips, Kamixlo once explained to me his longtime fascination with Japanese wrestling. Contrasting the sport's brutal, full-contact physicality with the fake showmanship of its American counterpart, the 22-year-old Brixton-based producer said quietly that he dreams of one day collaborating with the Japanese wrestling crew that his label, Bala Club, is named after. The DJs Mechatok and Zakmatic, who were curled up in bed next to him, chimed in, saying that Kamixlo's tracks themselves sound like wrestling matches—with their violent, stomping percussion, foggy basslines, and razor-edged vocals clanging together like bodies being pulverized into dust. (Unfortunately, the recording of our interview from that night got fucked up after a technical glitch, and couldn't be salvaged.)
Without a doubt, "Bloodless Y" embodies this idea of a club banger as a visceral assault. It leaves a trail of carnage from the second its searing, mechanical bassline hits, and its sing-song reggaeton acapella haunts your bloody ears for days. The whelper of a track is fresh off the Chilean producer's recent EP, Angélico—a follow-up to his name-making, club-destroying Demonico EP from last year. If Kamixlo broke into the dance music ring with Demonico's "Paleta," "Bloodless Y" is his knockout.—Michelle Lhooq
Earth Trax and Newborn Jr—the duo of Baltic-Balearic-Beat legend Bartosz Kruczynski and a producer normally known as Matat Professionals—slunk onto discerning dancefloors across the globe earlier this year with Sax & Flute, their debut EP for Peckham label Rhythm Section. Clocking in at a smidgen over ten minutes, the B-side "Flute Track" is a pristine and crystalline new age-inflected ambient house jam that sits somewhere between "Xtal" and the teary-eyed glamour of Komapkt's most damply glossy. If you've ever wanted to recreate the strange sensation that comes with visiting a crystal healer on an overcast afternoon, in a club, you might just have found the perfect record.—Josh Baines
In 2016, Montreal-via-Vancouver house music purveyor Project Pablo put out releases for Lone's Magic Wire Recordings and Rotterdam's Clone Royal Oak, but it was a single on his SOBO imprint that might be the crown jewel in his prolific career so far. With freaked-out DX7 melodies, jingling cowbell, and a warm, meandering groove, "Closer" distills everything that we've come to love from the Canadian producer into one pristine, nearly seven-minute summer anthem. Unlike the Chainsmokers song of the same title, Pablo's "Closer" is better suited to smoky, after-hours loft parties, before the lights come on and the drugs wear off.—Max Mertens
Mika Risikio (AKA Ziúr) has a refreshingly open-minded approach to the strictures of club music. The Berlin-based DJ and producer told Discwoman's blog that "there is no right and wrong in music"—a refreshing bit of advice in an industry that prizes flawless beat-matching and pristine production techniques, both of which require expensive equipment many aspiring artists can't afford. Risikio's open-mindedness bears out in her own music no more compellingly than on "Collar Bone," a crumpled and compressed inversion of raves gone by. Jumping from stuttering vocals to drunken synth arpeggiations to squealing children, it's a collection of absurd and off-putting sounds that shouldn't work, but the forceful clatter of her percussion programming gives it enough propulsion to rise above the mire. No rules, just right.—Colin Joyce
French rap thrived in 2016. At the forefront are newly minted superstars PNL, but following not far behind comes MHD, a 21-year-old rapper of Guinean and Senegalese descent who hails from the 19th arrondissement in Paris. He made waves with a series of singles titled "Afro Trap 1-7," which combines complex rhythms with the brash energy of his city's rap scene. The results are original, electrifying, and deeply political at a time when France is wracked with xenophobia and racism toward its population of African immigrants. More than just a collection of infectious anthems, MHD's music offers a vivid defense of his right to belong in French society, and take pride in who he is.—Ezra Marcus
While Baauer's long-awaited debut Aa featured a coterie of guest stars, the record's best performances belonged to two relative newcomers. London grime MC Novelist—who also delivered a scene-stealing verse on Skepta's "Numbers" this year—and balaclava-wearing Brooklyn rapper Leikeli47 are perfect high-octane foils for each other, and "Day Ones" is a barreling, bruising collaboration in which Harry Rodrigues laces the duo with an earth-swallowing instrumental, all sabre-rattling bass and distorted cavalry horns, over which they trade battle cries.—Max Mertens
Of all the producers to descend from EDM's carnivalesque first wave, Marshmello seems to best understand the emotional currency that gave the scene any value in the first place: pure unrestrained fun. Other well-coiffed bros have adopted the scene's sappy romanticizing and 100-watt electronics—both of which our masked marauder also uses to single-tear-jerking effect on his breakout hit "Alone"—but few make aesthetic choices as unselfconsciously as he does.
Part and parcel with the runaway success of "Alone,"—which has 48 million YouTube streams and counting at the time of writing—is Marshmello's cartoonish headgear, the goofy dabbing in the song's video, and a handful of synth lines as grotesquely sticky and sweet as downing a whole bottle of Karo. The track is the sonic equivalent of those horrifying milkshake monstrosities that dazzled the Instagram feeds of suburban teens this year—take the hi-fi bombast of a Hard Summer headlining set, pile on a pound of sprinkles, and top it with a whole slice of cake. You'll suppress the urge to retch before you succumb and dig in, unapologetically.—Colin Joyce
What the hell is this song? It's not rap, that's for sure. Metro Boomin and CuBeatz' production barely uses drums—just a few daubs of sub-bass and a pointillist sprinkle of hi-hats as Uzi spits over what sounds like a lost Jamie xx xylophone loop, overlaid with barely audible synths that sound like neon skyscrapers looming in the background. A lesser artist might get lost in such an austere, chilly environment, but Uzi is more than a match for what surrounds him, smashing through the beat's glassy architecture with brash melodies that sound a lot closer to Blink-182 than Nas. Lil Uzi Vert is rap's first synth-dance-pop-punk star, and we're blessed to have him.—Ezra Marcus
The Berlin-based producer and DJ Peggy Gou's tracks pull from a variety of influences you want in your corner: Detroit, Chicago, the organic vibrancy of highlife (she's called African music her biggest influence)—it's all there. But like any artist turning heads and moving feet, the real power of her sound is all her own. Gou's penchant for layered sound design design and syrupy acid lines are all evident on this cut from her recent EP for Ninja Tune's Technicolour imprint. Another of 2016's most rapid success stories, Peggy Gou enters the next calendar year as a name on everybody's lips. One can't help think the track's title, which is Arabic for "destiny," is more than just a clever coincidence.—David Garber
The Honey Soundsystem crew has put out some absolutely fantastic records this year. When I tried to buy the Justin Cudmore record at Academy, Ron Like Hell strongly insisted I listen to this record by Honey's Bezier (AKA Robert Yang) before leaving the store (thank you Ron). The first time I heard "Cosmos" I thought to myself, this sounds like the Drive soundtrack, but less boring. Sure, your friends who had never heard of Chromatics loveeeed that soundtrack, but it was a knockoff; Bezier's Cosmetologist EP is the real thing.
What I love about the Honey crew at parties as well as in the studio is the complete individuality they each bring to the table. Bezier uses a classic and fairly simple palette of classic Juno-esque synths in an arrangement that turns and breathes seamlessly. It makes me want to cruise down a curvy road in a 5.0 Mustang (convertible top down, of course!), looking up as the cosmos flies by.—Joel Fowler
Skrillex's OWSLA label has made moves toward a more diverse sound palette over the past couple years—2016 alone saw them dabble in indie-leaning pop music, Jersey club aesthetics, and "fuck a genre" sounds by relative newcomers like Mija. But LOUDPVCK and NGHTMRE's "Click Clack" is proof that the label is staying in touch with their tympanic-membrane-rupturing roots. Most of the aggro, festival-filling music that people have taken to calling "trap" is built with rollercoaster-like engineering: build enough momentum, and you're bound to get a payoff with a drop, flip, roll, or other form of excitement. Yet most EDM-trap producers tend to practice restraint in comparison to, say, their gabber counterparts, as if they need to hold a bit of energy to get them to the end of the track. "Click Clack" throws that blueprint straight into a roaring bonfire from its opening seconds, blasting from barely tonal synth stabs into relentless waves of stomach-churning drops that feel like hardstyle tracks transcribed for LRAD. Few tracks in recent memory are as vertigo-inducing, but that's the fun of tracks like this—never knowing which way is up.—Colin Joyce
One thing that surely cannot be said about Staycore is that they stood still in 2016. Quite the contrary, this new and exciting collective—founded in 2014 and featuring the likes of Dinamarca, Ghazal, and mobilegirl among many others—took clubs such as Berlin's Panorama Bar by storm. While a vivid 2k16 trend has been a certain UK-orientated rave nostalgia, the DJ sets of this international crew helped define what contemporary club music could sound like. Often linking aggressive hardcore beats, trance patterns, Caribbean rhythms, and pop hits in a challenging, ever-changing mixture, Toxe proved herself a master at this brave new sound. And among the many great tracks Staycore has been responsible for, this banging, Kenzo-supported Toxe-Mechatok collaboration might be its most ideal representative. Kicking off in a menacing, almost chamber drama-like fashion, it sees heavy synths and a crunching beat join forces, bringing to life all of Staycore's promises.—Thomas Vorreyer
Harlem producer Sporting Life (AKA Eric Adiele) got his start as the core producer for NYC rap group Ratking. This year, the producer stepped out on his own, signing to R&S Records, and dropping his debut LP, Slam Dunk. On "Court Vision," the album's lead single, he teamed up with Vancouver's Evy Jane to deliver one of the most beautiful downtempo anthems of the year. The collaboration plays to the musicians' strengths—Evy Jane Mason is left plenty of room to breathe over Adiele's spare beat, a skittering hi-hat that gallops over his lush pads and tumbling kick drum. It's a comedown gem that deserves a misty morning spliff to end the night.—Jesse Weiss
It's hard to make a good edit of any classic house track, let alone one that was released in 1993 and still sounds fresh. But Shan and Gerd Janson found a way. Their breakbeat shuffle tricks you into thinking that their version might have been released a long time ago, perhaps even in the same era as the original. This track is a good example of respecting one's source material while taking it in a new direction.—Philipp Kutter
The idea that nostalgia colors our expectations in hazy, unsettling ways is the backbone of Netflix's sci-fi sensation Stranger Things, so it's only fitting that the show had music to match, care of the Austinite synth-slingers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. As half of the sepia-toned quartet S U R V I V E, the pair has spent the better part of the last decade exploring the subtle terror inherent in the brittle synth lines that scored the Reagan era's hastily put together horror films.
The theme song for Stranger Things, built around the same sort of tightly coiled analog arpeggiations that fills S U R V I V E's records away from the TV show, showcases the soundtrack's much-lauded triumphs in miniature. Just when the panic of those eighth note barrages seem too much to bear, the song lands on a final celestial chord, presenting something hopeful underneath all that tension. Like the show itself, it's a nod to the wondrousness that coexists with the dread of childhood memories.—Colin Joyce
As the results poured in on election night and I wiped my tears in total disbelief, Lotic, AKA J'Kerian Morgan, answered the crippling hopelessness felt around the world with a palpating rework of Beyonce's "Formation" titled "Election Anxiety/America Is Over Edit." From the moment it starts, the thunderous drum line hints at a looming revolt—a greater call to action for collective resistance against white supremacy. With a corrupt leader coming to power, Lotic's take on Bey's empowerment anthem feels like an encouragement to "get in formation," storm the front lines, and fight against systems designed to destroy black and brown bodies. It urges us to slay outside the dancefloor, and arm ourselves with the love and strength we'll need to get through the dark days ahead.—Max Mohenu
A label called Alien Jams may seem a little on-the-nose for releasing one of extraterrestrial experimentalist Beatrice Dillon's forays into celestial techno. But the London label—whose handful of releases over the last couple years largely live up to that interstellar title—were able to coax something a little more earthbound out of a producer who's tried her hand at countless otherworldly styles over the course of her career. Drawn from a split with composer Karen Gwyer, "Curl" gradually evolves from primordial gunk into ticking, elastic motion, its gentle cycles resembling something like locomotion. Or maybe, given the loopy gravity of its rhythms, it's more like QWOP's gawky, awkward and endearing take on anthropoid movement. The listener is overcome with the cringey feeling of watching someone else trip and faceplant—and there's little more human than that.—Colin Joyce
Through his flickering, introverted revisions of big-tent festival sounds, Porter Robinson has found a uniquely personal spot in the sweat-and-glow-stick wake of EDM. "Shelter," his one-off collaboration with the similarly-minded French producer/songwriter Madeon, is one of Robinson's more rafter-reaching tracks in recent memory, built around the skyward lurch of a chopped vocal and floodlight synthesizer lines. But Robinson's strength lies in making moments of grandeur quiver with candlelit intimacy and turning screeching electronics into whispering bummer jams. Madeon proves a fitting partner in this particular endeavor, singing sweetly about taking comfort in interpersonal connections during life's trials. It's a song about finding comfort in spite of the odds, from two producers who've made their whole careers off that idea.—Colin Joyce
Ethiopia is a good home for electronic music, says Mikael Seifu, and this is the song that proves him right. In a country without a dominant electronic music culture, a mind like Seifu's—filled with sounds from local folk to Burial, Stockhausen to techno—can operate as freely as he wants it to. On "How To Save A Life," the producer combines traditional Ethiopian instruments with electronics, adding a whole new layer to the 4/4 regime. Halfway into the six minute-long track, after an intriguing call-and-response intro between a flute sound and some percussion, strings flare up again and again in a crescendo. The groove becomes irresistible, and you think to yourself, This thing must fall apart in a second, it just cannot keep going on this energy level. But it does. And by the end, you've already put "How To Save A Life" on repeat. Is this song made for eternity? Well, it's definitely made for our times.—Thomas Vorreyer
While the Black Madonna (born Marea Stamper) has produced her own music in the past, her recent prominence on the electronic music stage has given her both the attention and resources to fulfill a longstanding vision. This year, she launched her own label, We Still Believe, with a ten-minute, ecstatic paean to disco called "He Is the Voice I Hear." From the minute its lush piano chords and violin stabs break into a rollicking disco beat, it's clear that Stamper meant this song to be a statement-making release that stands apart from the typical 2016 dance music hits. Focusing on live instrumentation, she collaborated with Grammy award-winning violinist Davide Rossi and pianist Christoforo La Barbera on the track, noting in the accompanying press release, "I wanted to return to an older way of making disco and dance music."
The title of the track comes from a Frankie Knuckles quote where he pays homage to his friend and mentor, Larry Levan. Similarly, Stamper dedicates her song to all the voices who inspired her—including both Knuckles and Levan, as well as Arthur Russell, Walter Gibbons, and Loleatta Holloway. Stamper has a knack for straddling both the past and future of dance music: her sound harkens back to the classic house and disco of the Paradise Garage era, while her progressive politics of fighting inequality and paying homage to dance music's queer roots taps into some of the most important issues of our time. Nowhere is that more clear than on "He Is the Voice I Hear."—Michelle Lhooq
Garage crooner Craig David's unexpectedly triumphant comeback was one of 2016's rare moments of joy. The UK producer/vocalist, who shot to stardom 16 years ago with the runaway success of his debut album Born To Do It, returned in 2016 with an album that went straight to the top of the UK charts. One of the album's singles, the cheekily titled "16," pays tribute to the passage of time by mixing his 2000 hit "Fill Me In" with Jack Ü and Justin Bieber's CinemaScope beat for "Where Are Ü Now," of all things.
It opens with stripped back instrumental so David can display the full power of his Werther's-sweet voice until he reaches a line made more poignant by the all the passing time: "We were just doing things young people in love do." It's a reminder that even back then he was a master of nostalgia, capturing the subtle warmth of pleasant times just out of reach—made all the more poignant here by the recursiveness of this remix. He's looking back on looking back; the cozy memories are 16 years more distant.—Anna Codrea-Rado
It took another masked man to coax Burial, AKA William D. Bevan, back to earth from whatever celestial realms he's been inhabiting on his last few sparse releases. Fellow UK-born mysterio Zomby pulled him in on "Sweetz," a standout from the former's new album Ultra that's as full of street-level propulsion as any of the late-night drives that populate Bevan's most beloved work. The spectral cries and crackle that have become Burial trademarks are employed as scene-setters for the dystopian rave memories that Zomby's become so adept at conjuring. It's a glorious return from the phantasmal realms of Burial's recent EPs to the grit of the real world—a streak of psychomagnotheric slime across the dancefloor.—Colin Joyce
Brazilian teens churned out oceans of wild and wavy baile funk this year. Some of the best came from the effervescent icon MC Pikachu, a dude with a mile-wide grin, a high-pitched voice, and a knack for hooks. "Lá No Meu Barraco" consists of nothing more than a flute line, a drum loop, and Pikachu's sing-song voice chanting melodies that will never leave your head again. At first listen, the track sounds almost too spare to exist, but it unleashes bone-shaking energy when played on the right dancefloor at the right volume (loud as hell). There's also an incredible video that features MC Pikachu seducing a girl twice his height by shaking a chicken at her while she watches from a balcony. Delicious.—Ezra Marcus
"Better" is an OWSLA family affair, pairing two of the Skrillex-helmed label's rising acts on a summery slice of feel-good music that's prime for playing out on open-air stages during festival season. Both parties are equally represented on the track—Vindata's glimmering chords, Mija's hints of happy hardcore—but the sonic highlight is the song's namesake vocal sample ("just keeps getting better") that's as saccharinely reassuring as a carton of ice cream after a bad breakup.—Krystal Rodriguez
Compared to the year before, 2016 has been a bit of a quiet one for this duo from Belfast. Bicep have been DJing all over the world—obviously—but in terms of new music, they've kept things largely under wraps, staying off-grid while they apparently work on something big for the not too distant future. Don't let that fool you into thinking 2016 was a write-off, though. With this deft repurposing of 808 State's rave classic "In Yer Face," they produced one of the biggest peak-time house tunes of the year. Like most of their trademark tunes, it's huge-sounding and fun, but there's a darker, stranger quality existing beneath it, building on the rafter-rattling character of its source material and leaving an impression that lasts well beyond the club.—Angus Harrison
As his DJ career continues to gain profile year after year, most still know Detroit-turned-Brooklyn hero Mike Servito as a selector, not a producer. It's perhaps the lack of pressure to churn out club hits that's led to the inimitable simplicity behind his refix for fellow Brooklynite Justin Cudmore. Servito's take on Cudmore's debut tune for Honey Soundsystem is a freewheeling, acid-drenched belter, brimming with the same looseness and elasticity of his celebrated DJ sets. Put us on the list.—David Garber
Think of "Fade" as a much hornier version of Kanye's "Lost in the World." When that first line, "Your love is fadin," hits, ears perk up and eyes get a little bigger in anticipation of the spectacle that's about to unfold. Then the beat—which samples the classic house tracks "Mystery of Love" by Fingers Inc. and "Deep Inside" by Harddrive, as well as Rare Earth's cover of the Temptations' "(I Know) I'm Losing You"—drops. And the next thing you know, sweaty strangers are rubbing up on each other in the middle of what pilgrims probably thought pagan worship ceremonies look like.
"Fade" was everywhere you went this year—every memorable Uber ride, every worthwhile party, every muffled leak through the earphones of your coworkers who play their music so loud to the point that you worry about how bad their tinnitus is going to be. "Fade" is one of those Kanye moments that often gets overlooked, and now that it's getting cold out, the song might lose a little bit of its hot-blooded luster—so do your best to bestow or receive one more good wine to it while you can.—Trey Smith
As she explained in her FADER-produced documentary, Bronx native Destiny Frasqueri—better known by her stage name, Princess Nokia—struggled to find her voice as a teenage rapper when labels were battling for her to sign with them. "They were expecting me come out with a jam, and I couldn't do it," she explained. This year she finally wrote the jam that everyone was looking for: "Tomboy," which came out on her self-released mixtape 1992 earlier this year. The Saint-produced track opens with Frasqueri spitting over militaristic drumming and whistles, until she bursts out proudly and abruptly, "With my little titties and my fat belly." You might laugh at first, but pretty soon you'll be belting the devil-may-care line right along with her.—Meilyn Huq
In a year where Danny Wolfers' output was relatively quiet by his standards, he used the best known of his more-than-30 aliases, Legowelt, to release an album and two EPs. One of those works was Sampling Winter, released on the British label Unknown To The Unknown; the title track of which has the unmistakable Legowelt aura—warm, a bit raw, and projecting a colorful melange that manages to feel nostalgic and futuristic at the same time.
How does he do it? You might be tempted to credit his nearly infinite collection of vintage studio equipment, but he's sworn that's not the secret to the cordial glow of tracks like this. "Slowly you will see it as plastic crap that is lying around your house," He wrote in the book R is for Roland. "I am focused purely on sound. It does not matter if it comes from a computer or a vintage 1970 synth." Honestly, Danny, we don't care how you do it—as long as you keep sampling the winter, the summer, and the spring.—Juan Pablo Lopez
Mall Grab's Alicia Keys-sampling breakout production "Can't" floated around YouTube for about a year before it saw a proper release on the South London label Church. Secreted away on moderately popular YouTube channels, and paired with videos that contained a bunch of pretty shapes and tripp characters, the track built up the mystique that anonymous white labels used to back in the day. Even if Jordon Alexander (the producer behind the moniker) wasn't exactly anonymous, how did he manage to emerge so fully formed? The production's clever and immediately gratifying, twisting Keys's vocals around narcotic electric piano lines, a surprisingly textured and subtle effort for the genre of R&B-sampling house tracks. Finally, this simple-yet-sensual tune is off the web and into the world.—David Garber
Year after year (end list), Pampa Records boss and German iconoclast DJ Koze continues to surprise us. In 2015, he piqued our curiosity with an excellent DJ-Kicks mix full of charming and soulful edits. This year, he one-upped himself with a disco edit for British singer-songwriter Lapsley that could soundtrack a silly college beach party as well as a packed dancefloor. Unfolding over 10 minutes, Koze's remix of "Operator" graces us with moody pads topped by cheerful bells and whistles—it feels akin to his chuggy DJ sets and other floor-filling tracks from his discography, like 2015's stimulating "XTC." His edit for Lapsley, however, isn't built for chin-strokers. Instead, Koze aims for what great dance tracks are built for: helping you have the time of your life with a goofy grin plastered across your face. No operator needed here—you've got our number Koze. Call anytime.—David Garber
When asked about their recording process earlier this year, Marie Davidson of Montreal minimal wave duo Essaie Pas told THUMP, "It's more about music that has an impact on the mind and the body. I like to think I can make groovy stuff that's intellectual and sensual at the same time." This sentiment is echoed in "Naive To The Bone," the centerpiece of the spoken-word poet and producer's solo LP Adieux Au Dancefloor ("Goodbye to the Dancefloor"), released on Minimal Wave's techno-leaning sublabel Cititrax. Over sparse-but-hefty drum machine rhythms and subzero synth lines, Davidson addresses club politics with both tongue-in-cheek humor and vulnerability. "Is it that you feel superior behind a costume of indifference?" she coolly asks at one point, before delivering a searing wake-up call. "It's 2016, get real."—Max Mertens
The pain of the oppressed is palpable in Moor Mother's work, but it rings disturbingly loud on "KBGK." Thunderous bass and industrial distortion rip through the track as Moor Mother scathingly delivers the lines, "Hands up don't shoot / That's your occupation." The song reveals itself as an unsettling step-by-step manual on how to systematically oppress people of color. Creepy dissonant synth lines disquietingly repeat as she growls, "If you can't drop a bomb on their plantation, just get 'em, go get 'em." The tortured anthem could serve as a warning for the coming days.—Meilyn Huq
It's taken a couple of decades, but Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo have finally fulfilled their long-implied desire to be robo-perfect pop producers with a pair of productions on The Weeknd's latest collection of rolled-bills balladry. Their first team-up "Starboy" was a statement of intent—a vision of the Billboard chart's past reflected a little too uncannily in retrofuturist chromatics. But nestled at the tail end of the record's 18 tracks, "I Feel It Coming" is a slightly more human collaboration—an impossibly silken embrace after all the turmoil of The Weeknd's records. It starts like a (Random Access?) memory of the glitzy disco that Daft Punk have come to fetishize over the course of their career, but as they bring their sunny vocoder trills from behind the clouds, the record ends in an electro-chorale—a reminder that technology's embrace need not necessarily be cold, and that, of course, the robots were human after all.—Colin Joyce
When he wasn't lofting prankish "Get in the Ring"-esque overtures at electronic music's most prominent critics, DJ Sotofett was quietly doing what he does every year: sneaking out some of the most transportive tracks in the dance ecosystem—portals to other realms locked in limited quantities on vinyl releases. The A-side of a split 12" on Keys of Life is among the best of the low-key travelogues he's issued over the last few years, a dozen-minute long night drive through the seedier sides of the Balearic isles that pulses with the ominous throb of a night where you know you've been out just a bit too long. It doesn't move much over the course of its 12 minutes, playing around with ambient synth pads as that rumbling bassline roils away, but in the wee hours of the morning—as you know the sun's rising, but quite can't bring yourself to hit the road home, this one will do the trick. You'll find yourself imagining you're beachside, taking in the choppy early morning waters of the Mediterranean, dreaming of better days, always.—Colin Joyce
"Wine Up" is the sort of freaky, lithe track that leaves you bouncing even if you listen to it on your commute—which I have done, regularly. Yet there's something duplicitous about it, something else going on underneath. Jubilee has said she wants this to reflect an entire night out—from the drive to the club to the afterparty. Though much of "Wine Up" dwells on the club part of that journey—it is the most eventful segment—there's something about those crystalline opening chords that evokes pathos and promise: that giddy, queasy rush you get in the cab on the way out. It probably won't be the best night of your life, but there's always that chance.—Angus Harrison
Leaning on a sample from Lee Alfred's 1980 "Rockin'-Poppin Full Tilting," "Final Credits" vacuum packs the loose swagger of the original into something far tighter and tenser, converting it into a coiled, rippling anthem. It's a cliche to start talking about tunes that "make you put your hands in the air," but it's impossible to pick another track that united the summer audiences of 2016 like this one. Midland has been producing remarkable music for some time, but this infectious and intelligent party record is exactly the mainstream crossover he deserved.—Angus Harrison
The handful of productions that Manchester producer Sophie Wilson has made as Willow over the last couple of years have done a lot for bringing levity to house's more minimal, austere corners. The sheer collection of sounds on the untitled first track on her solo outing for Workshop follows through with more fun. Electronics squawk like bike horns, ring like disembodied banjos, and generally do spit-takes over the lonely throb of its ominous bassline and vocal sample combo. Over the course of track's five-and-a-half minutes, she crumples up the blueprints for trip-hop, lithe funk, and grinning house tracks, then unfolds them to reveal something like a paper snowflake, fluttering and complex in spite of the seemingly simple process that birthed it.—Colin Joyce
Unlike a lot of productions stylistically related to Jersey club, DJ Haram's "Birds of Paradise" isn't organized around a main theme or hook. While it sustains a consistent atmosphere and largely sticks to one group of sounds and samples, the track refuses to dedicate its entire self to the cultivation and exploration of a single musical moment. There's no trademark melodic turn or show-stopping rhythmic gesture; instead, the track conveys an intimate sense of ongoing negotiation. In an interview with FADER, the producer said the track is like when "you're crying tears of vindictive joy" and "everything is blurry but somehow more vibrant in color," and in that uncanny, protean vibrancy it finds its profound space of unfolding.—Alexander Iadarola
ANOHNI makes you uncomfortable in the most comfortable way. On Hopelessness, her first album-length foray into electronic music—she deals in heavy subject matters that drag you under like quicksand, but ascendant beats drag you right back out of the mire. The "Daddy" hook and the first few lines of "Watch Me," are among the album's most sinister moments—conjuring an image of a patriarchal figure watching over ANOHNI in her most vulnerable moments: "Watch me in my hotel room ... watching me watching pornography."
As she details more privacy invasions, it becomes clear that the song is a mockery of our surveillance-obsessed society—a darker sentiment even than the song's surface offers—but then her voice soars, and Hudson Mohawke's diffuse synth pads refract into a vast spectrum of colors. It's one of the record's paradoxically bright moments, which only underscores the song's point—how willingly we submit to forces that seek to control us.—Anna Codrea-Rado
The title of "Rave Voyeur," the lead single from Lorenzo Senni's first Warp release, is a knowing nod to the tenuous distance with which he appreciates club music—he's always on the outside looking in. But that doesn't mean he doesn't understand the music. Though he came up in hardcore punk and experimental scenes, his chemist-like approach to "pointilistic trance"—as he described his 2012 Editions Mego outing Quantum Jelly—has seen the producer welcomed by dance music's headiest circles (he even has a project with Powell called Hot Shotz). Stewing in the saccharine runoff of rave music, Senni returns to scientific impulses with this giddy disassembly of one of dance music's most ecstatic subgenres. He rearranges all those glucosic arpeggios and luminous argon bass lines into something more complex and threatening—a reminder that brightness can blind you and sugar might rot your teeth in the long run.—Colin Joyce
Floorplan, the house-leaning half of Robert Hood's legendary musical output specializes in jubilation. Most great dance tracks strive to make you feel good, but Hood and his daughter Lyric—a new addition to the duo—manage to do so with less moving parts than most. "Tell You No Lie," which you probably heard more than a few times if you went to a festival this summer, is a prime example. It's basically an extended, vocal-led disco loop—a classically anthemic number that somehow manages to be weighty and grand despite its uncomplicated structure. If Hood's work usually mirrors explosive gratification you get from a high five, this one's like the more subtle embrace of a long, warm hug. Hold on tight, and never let go.—David Garber
At SXSW this year, I spent an entire 45 minutes trying to snap a non-blurry photo of Dawn Richard for THUMP's Instagram using a $40 dollar burner phone. My real phone had broken en route to Texas, but the real problem was that the Louisiana-born singer and producer just wouldn't keep still. The venue was half empty and smelled like stale beer, but Dawn worked the stage like she was starring in an expensive 90s music video, dressed in head-to-toe white and flanked by a pair of hunky backup dancers. That's something I think I'll always remember about Dawn: the giant, almost quixotic proportions of her vision, whether she's bundling three consecutive albums into an epic concept trilogy, or overseeing the construction of the large white triangle—the symbol that she has been using in lieu of her name—that she uses as a backdrop for her shows.
That said, I think my favorite statement of hers from this year was the simplest one, with the simplest sentiment. "Honest," a collaboration with Fade to Mind boss Kingdom that appeared on her four-track Infrared EP from May, showed that despite her stadium-sized ambitions, she was also capable of making a lot out of very little. In the case of "Honest", that meant some slinky synths, a spindly beat, and a confession that pretty much everybody in the world can relate to, at least some of the time: some people are just really hard to get over.—Emilie Friedlander
If the Rhythm Method's 2015 single "Local, Girl" is the pub session that precedes the night out proper, and "Home Sweet Home" is the Uber-home tearjerker, then this year's "Party Politics" is the sound of being fucking terminated with your best friends at the kind of house party that only comes around once in a blue moon. No other cultural object of 2016 has given me as much unstinting joy as this four-minute blast of Squeeze by way of an early Trax release, and for that reason alone, it should be treasured for years to come—a glistening reminder that we'll always be able to find some kind of laughter in the dark.—Josh Baines
If there were such thing as outdoor techno, then Avalon Emerson would've dominated that year-end list with "The Frontier" and "2000 Species of Cacti," the two tracks of her desert ride-themed Whities release. The Berlin-via-San Francisco producer filled each with a dreamy, pulsating remembrance of the her upbringing in Arizona, and while it's quite hard to chose one over the other, "2000 Species of Cacti" wins the photo-finish with the dry heat of its minimal beat and deceptively cool melody. While each Avalon Emerson record is different from the one before and the one to follow, the triumph of "2000 Species" is an airy openness—as if it were the soundtrack to every great road movie you've ever enjoyed.—Thomas Vorreyer
Montreal producer Kaytranada's "Glowed Up," a collaboration with red-hot Californian rapper and singer-songwriter Anderson .Paak, was one of the highest peaks on his debut album 99.9%, an unhurried slice of electro-funk that comes across as an exclamation mark in a prolific discography. Between the effervescent synths, rumbling low end, and the multihypenate performer's raspy, can't-tell-me-nothing boasts, no 2016 house party playlist is complete without it.—Max Mertens
"Four Ethers" tells the story of what exactly love is: a laborious journey, but a journey that's (almost) always worth it, regardless of where you land. More often than not, it's going to be a disastrous end. But you'll stick around, because being in love means helping to put someone on the path to happiness that you wanted them to be on since the day you met. The song begins with a slow march of brass instruments and heavy drums, over which serpentwithfeet tells his lover that he accepts all of their flaws—now he needs them to love themselves, so they can accept his love in return. "How can I touch somebody who won't even touch themselves?/It's tiring to me," he sings. While opening yourself completely to someone can be a terrifying experience, it's one we all need to have every now and then.—Trey Smith
A couple of times of this year, I've been in a club, late at night or early in the morning, flitting between tiredness and abandon—that weird bug-eyed state where you're no longer sure whether you need to go home or stay for another five hours. Dry ice clouding my vision, shoulders barging past, the soles of my trainers sticking to the floor when, out of nowhere, this tune starts. This strange, alien tentacle of a tune—like the drip of something chemical at the back of your throat. Pearson Sound's weirdo melter has been following me all year. "XLB" marks a new high in the experimental realms of UK techno/post-dubstep/nu-IDM or whatever you want to call it. It's an ethereal, skeletal creature that actually does very little—just the same rolling descent of those incessant, pinging tones—but the world it builds is cavernous. Every time I've heard it out, when the drips dissipate, and that bassline finally bounds in with full force, the air has been sucked out of the room. In the year of Pangaea's debut LP, and a continued slew of Ben UFO sets, the Hessle crew continue to sound the weirdest corners of our reality. "XLB" is a strange, unnerving machine for strange, unnerving times.—Angus Harrison
The xx are one of the biggest little-sounding bands in the world, captivating both crowded concert audiences and solitary, lovesick youth with sparse, intimate arrangements that utilize negative space as a form of texture. It's a winning formula that many have tried (and failed) to replicate since—so why mess with a good thing? But "On Hold" does exactly that, and with aplomb: featuring a delightfully twisted sample of Hall and Oates' "I Can't Go For That," the first single from the band's forthcoming album I See You signals a bold new direction for the trio, warm-blooded and full-bodied pop where a skeleton once resided. "On Hold" is also the perfect merging of the xx's sensitive sensibilities and the global, blurry club music that band member Jamie xx has minted his solo career on, a chocolate-and-peanut butter combo that's so ear-pleasing that you might just have to dance to it.—Larry Fitzmaurice
The animated video Amnesia Scanner released for "AS Crust," probably the most demented-sounding, ear-wormy song on this year's AS EP, is hard to watch. An abstracted, glitched-out human leg kicks what appears to be a mechanical approximation of a dog; the canine stumbles, falters around for a few steps, and then reappears at the right side of the frame, only to get violently rammed from the side again. I was only able to stomach watching the video a couple times; I felt bad for the dog, even knowing that it was a robot.
The anonymous Berlin electronic duo don't do interviews, so we may never find out what they were going for with the video (aside, it would appear, from using footage from a video about robot dogs as its source material). But I do know how the song, with its ominous synth drone, teetering drums, and chirpy circus melody of a lead, made me feel: the grueling mixture of emotions that comes with the growing impossibility of distinguishing between a technological simulation of life and the real thing.—Emilie Friedlander
Arca's early mind-melting releases on UNO NYC contained hooks, curdled samples from rap and R&B, and what felt like a feckless curiosity about the world. Arca was for the freaks, but his romanticism shone through the noise like a lighthouse through fog. His last two releases were a little more unmoored, delving into abstraction as if he was retreating into himself. So I was surprised when I heard "Sick," his collaboration with Hood By Air's Shayne Oliver as Wench. The pair employ the same mixture of queasiness and catchiness that hooked me in the first place, ripping the veil of sterile perfection off of pop music as we normally understand it to reveal something disgusting and lovable beneath. If you don't sometimes feel like "a bitch with no twist," we can't relate.—Ezra Marcus
Techno doesn't often get talked about in terms of biology, but such is the metaphor behind Karen Gwyer's single, "Prophase Metaphase Anaphase Telephase." Scientists will recognize each of those words as the names for phases in mitosis—the process of cell division that all life on Earth depends upon. After some time of studying "PMAT" under a microscope, there's truly something that feels more sentient in the helical architecture of Gwyer's synth lines than many of the ones her peers in acid techno are able to conjure. These lines roil relentlessly over fluttering hi-hats, mutating, breathing, dividing, and changing in a way that mirrors the delicate harmony and overwhelming complexity of the natural world.—Colin Joyce
"Qwazars," Larry Heard's long-awaited return to his Mr. Fingers moniker, finds the veteran producer working with a different relationship to the temporality of music history. Where young producers often work towards a pursuit of the new, Mr. Fingers' Outer Acid EP saw the house music innovator return to a decades-long musical trajectory with virtuosic elegance. That he can still be so devoted—and unbelievably skilled—at refining his practice after all these years gives the precise, hypnotic machinations of "Qwazars" a hard-earned insight in its very fibers.—Alexander Iadarola
The first time I really listened to "Never Be Like You" was during Movement Festival in Detroit, crammed between a bunch of THUMP staffers in an Uber, en route to a Discwoman afterparty at some bar. I mean really listened: the song had already been out for months, but for some reason, it didn't really click until it was coming at us at top volume from all sides, with a vast, mostly unknown city streaking past the windows.
Here was one of the biggest, most expensive-sounding pop anthems that our little corner of the musical universe had coughed up since Diplo started hanging out with Justin Bieber. It's packed from start to finish with the musical equivalent of "dessert": the way the glittering bells at the beginning sound just like Christmas; the trampoline-like bounce of the bass during the verse, and the theatrical tension of the bridge; the way the track's vocalist, Kai, hits the high notes with just the slightest bit of breath. But the parts of the song I loved the most, the bits that elevated it from a very good song to probably a very great song, were the ones that didn't really seem to fit: the way the drums seem to stutter for a moment at the end of every verse, like they're tripping against the song's crystalline architecture; the little wonky chipmunked voices, which don't serve any real structural purpose other than sounding weird.
"Never Be Like You" felt kind of like EDM's answer to the brave new pop future that FKA Twigs first promised with her deliriously off-kilter, Arca-co-produced second EP: a pop music where that form's most pleasurable tropes, and a spirit of punk disruption, could peacefully co-exist. Flume was by no means the first musician to demonstrate that very good melodic music can also be very experimental, and appeal to so-called "poptimist" critics and underground-minded critics alike. But he may very have been the first to show the world—in the most heartening way possible—that music this experimental can get 250 million plays on Spotify.—Emilie Friedlander
Usually, so-called "anonymous producers" aren't really that anonymous. Maybe the producer in question will pull a Burial and leak a surprise selfie somewhere; or a quick search on Discogs will pull up a legal name. Traumprinz is the rare producer who has stayed pretty much entirely off of the grid, though we do know that he also puts out music under the monikers Prince of Denmark and Metatron, hails from Hannover, Germany, and is associated with the Weimer-based Gieling label and collective, known for its melodic, minimal takes on Chicago house. In a rare interview with Resident Advisor, the producer summed up the difference between the Traumprinz project and the Prince of Denmark very plainly: "One is a child and the other a man."
"2 The Sky" is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, packaged as a remix of a Traumprinz song by a Traumprinz alter ego. Maybe the original "2 The Sky" is still hidden somewhere inside the German producer's digital vaults, but we can't imagine really a imagine a version of the song that improves on this one. The ingredients are so scant, it's hard to believe they add up to a song: a skippy breakbeat, underscored by bongo sounds here and there; a descending, three-note synth scale that rolls by like waves crashing against a shore; and then, at around the two-minute mark, a female vocal sample from what sounds like a long-lost soul record, fading slowly but insistently into ear shot: "To the sky. Back into the sky."
Some impressionistic piano notes and an out-of-nowhere exclamation—"All right!"—at around the five-minute mark make for something of a climax, but the song doesn't really need one. It unfurls as a ten-minute long peak, the kind of little pocket of heaven club kids craves at the end of a long, grueling night—or, in the case of many who are reading this, at the end of a long, grueling year. Put it on next time you're in need of a little bit of hope; or, if you're out of hope, you can let it do your hoping for you.—Emilie Friedlander