House goes R&B, dubstep goes subterranean, panic goes to the disco, Justice goes to space, and moombahton does whatever moombahton wants. Groove, however, is still in the heart. Presenting our picks for the 20 best dance records of 2011.
SPIN’s Best of 2011:
— One Fucked Up Year: SPIN’s Best of 2011 Issue
— SPIN’s 50 Best Albums of 2011
— SPIN’s 20 Best Songs of 2011
— SPIN’s 40 Best Rap Albums of 2011
— SPIN’s 10 Best Reissues of 2011
— SPIN’s 25 Best Live Photos of 2011
— Endless Bummer: 30 Ways 2011 Was a Drag
20. Four Tet, Fabriclive 59
With the memory of 2010’s blissful There Is Love in You still fresh, Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden spent 2011 expanding the brand. There was a string of tech-house singles, a collaboration with Thom Yorke and Burial, a free-jazz double album, and all of it was capped with this catholic mix for London’s famed Fabric superclub. Rather than simply link together the latest club tracks, Hebden wove vintage garage 2-step, minimalistic drone, deep dubstep, and his own bubbly compositions. He even sprinkled in some sounds recorded outside the club, resulting in an adventurous collage that considers both what’s inside the walls and beyond. ANDY BETA
19. Africa Hitech, 93 Million Miles
Named for the distance between the Earth and the Sun, Africa Hitech’s 93 Million Miles travels an unusual path through the bass music galaxy, with elements of grime, dubstep, juke, and dancehall reggae ringing a core of shuddering drums and molten synths. Rather than falling prey to the post-everything doldrums, the duo (Global Communication’s Mark Pritchard and Spacek’s Steve White) infuses its shape-shifting forms with a rare vitality, whether it’s the apocalyptic, Ini Kamoze-sampling “Out in the Streets” or the uncharacteristically sweet closer “Don’t Fight It.” PHILIP SHERBURNE
18. Mark E, Stone Breaker
After building his reputation as a master of slo-mo house — syrupy-sweet, low-100 bpm edits of Janet Jackson and Grace Jones — Birmingham’s Mark E proved that also he could craft studious-yet-pistoning tracks on his own. Taking cues from the deep end of Detroit and Chicago electronic music, this debut full-length moves from the deliberate stomp of “Black Country Saga” and soul-flecked “The Day” into the darker acid of “Belvide Beat,” taking us on a trip without ever leaving second gear. A.B.
17. Justice, Audio, Video, Disco
For those about to rock…well, perhaps you should dance instead. So goes the motto of Justice’s sophomore album, Audio, Video, Disco. Fans of AC/DC and Yes might not approve of the French duo’s prefab progginess or their showy union of ’70s-era power chords with come-hither electro rhythms. But this bombastic, bold album is as fit for a middle-school mixer as it is for a sold-out stadium. And we salute them. PHOEBE REILLY
16. Theo Parrish, Uget
An “edit” is often a self-indulgent tool for DJs and producers to alter a track — prolong a drum break, cut out undesirable vocals, tweak the EQ — all to make other people’s music better fit their own aesthetic. That said, Theo Parrish’s Ugly Edit 12-inches from the early ’00s are infamous, with the Detroit techno luminary reinventing soul, funk, hip-hop, and house tracks to be even more eminently danceable. This two-disc comp makes his edits available to the masses: Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes stripped of all vocals save a deep-toned Teddy Pendergrass; a smooth reinvention of Kool & the Gang’s “Hot Hot Summer Day”; and four-on-the-floor renditions of the Dells, Jill Scott, and Funkadelic. On a more fleshed-out plane is the reissue of Parrish’s self-released 2000 debut, Parallel Dimensions, a collection of meditative techno infused with jazz, African drums, hazy dub, and melodic, bluesy inflections serving as a foundation for the producer’s signature dance hypnosis. PUJA PATEL
15. Peaking Lights, 936
Chillwave’s next hot spot is in flyover country: Madison, Wisconsin, which is where Peaking Lights couple Indra Dunis and Aaron Coyes have set up shop (literally, opening a vintage store there). Layering Coyes’ homemade synths, sputtering drum machines, and Dunis’ lullabying chants, they created the year’s most charming (read: lo-fi) and dreamy (read: smoggy) electronic release. “All the Sun That Shines” imagines Tom Tom Club and Paul McCartney circa-II sparking up inside Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio. As a whole, its hypnagogic grooves are smokier than a University of Wisconsin dorm room. A.B.
14. DJ Harvey, Locussolus
Twenty years after his first single, beachbum and intuitive grooveman DJ Harvey releases his first full-length, a compilation of previously released 12-inch singles with additional remixes by electronic heavy hitters (Lindstrom and Prins Thomas, Empire Machine, Andrew Weatherall). Playfully experimental, Locussolus tells an extended story where house music meets electro-propelled psychedelia, disco, and, if you search, a hint of ’80s new wave. On “Gunfire,” arcade laser blips pulsate over synth-washed crescendos and persistently rubbery bass lines. But “I Want It” and “Tan Sedan” embrace house head on, featuring call-and-response singalongs and frenetically funky propulsion. P.P.
13. Various Artists, Blow Your Head 2: Dave Nada Presents Moombahton
Two years after its inception, the reggaeton-meets-house movement of moombahton became an internet-propelled dance phenomenon thanks to the founding-father Dave Nada’s compilation for Mad Decent’s Blow Your Head series. It’s a no-frills primer for the genre, featuring several key innovators and keeping the movement’s “anything goes” mentality alive — well, except for that one rule that you have to build around a 108 bpm tempo. Here you’ll find bouncing rave synths paired with Dominican raps (Dillon Francis + Maluca’s “Que Que:), gorgeously laid-back dreamscapes (Munchi’s “Hope”), and pop-infected singalongs (Nadastrom’s “ReleaseRPM” remix). Shabba Ranks’ dancehall classic “Dem Bow” gets thrown in for context. P.P.
12. Motor City Drum Ensemble, DJ-Kicks
Daniel Plessow, a.k.a. Motor City Drum Ensemble, comes from Stuttgart, Germany’s car capital, and his dance-music moniker has just as much to do with techno’s spiritual home of Detroit. But the secret of MCDE’s edition of the venerable DJ-Kicks series is that it dips its toe into all kinds of waters — jazz from Sun Ra, Afrobeat from Tony Allen, disco from Arthur Russell — and feels equally at home in all of them. The pulse is steady throughout, but the tonal and production contrasts make it irresistible to both the electronic faithful and non-DJ-heads as well. MICHAELANGELO MATOS
11. Roman FlÃ¼gel, Fatty Folders
German producer Roman FlÃ¼gel has done it all: He pioneered trance in the ’90s before it became a bad word; his cheeky 2004 hit “Geht’s Noch?’ was the inadvertent blueprint for electro house at its squawkiest; and he even did an entire album of beats and xylophone. On his first album under his own name, FlÃ¼gel shows his range more subtly, tweaking finely tooled machine grooves over lush beds of piano and lyrical synth leads. For textbook deep house, it’s as idiosyncratic as it gets. P.S.
10. Art Department, The Drawing Board
Like all the best tarnished-tomorrow-evoking house music, Art Department sounds a little bit wrong; the Toronto duo cast shuffling, late-night house grooves in an almost gothic gloom. Despite spawning underground hits “Without You” and “We Call Love,” The Drawing Board is a weird, creepy album, shot through with off-key vocals, hesitant beats, and dissonant chords, as spindly as it is sensual. P.S.
9. Gil-Scott Heron and Jamie XX, We’re New Here
In 2010, I’m New Here offered drug- and life-ravaged firebrand Gil Scott-Heron as a startlingly plainspoken bluesman. Remixed by Jamie xx (who seems to be doing way more DJ and production work than, you know, his band), We’re New Here ran Scott-Heron’s voice through dubstep that’s by turns delicate (“Home”) and swampy (“My Cloud,” with heaving bass that Flying Lotus would appreciate). Two months after its release, on May 27, Scott-Heron died at age 62, leaving xx’s oft-playful ministrations an oddly appropriate memorial: a timeless voice navigating a half-thrilling, half-unstable future. M.M.
8. Zomby, Dedication
Zomby exploded dubstep’s horizons so thoroughly in the late ’00s that laying low for nearly two years before making his debut album for indie giant XL seemed like he was about to hatch something…though who reallyknows? Instead, he stepped back, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Dedication has plenty of bang in its back end, but its early, slower tracks are what lodge in your mind’s ear, whether it’s Zomby cutting a Russian pop singer into haunted phenomes on “Natalia’s Song” or Panda Bear crooning over the squiggly skank of “Things Fall Apart.” M.M.
7. Nicolas Jaar, Space Is Only Noise
Jet set Brown student, downtown New York City native, and son of Chilean conceptual artist Alfredo Jaar and designer Evelyne Maynard, Nicolas Jaar slipped onto the scene this year with an already intimidating pedigree: Chances are he was born into the kind of record collection that would make most collectors dizzy. Or that’s the impression you get from Space Is Only Noise, the 21-year old’s ultra-immersive full-length debut. Part oddball electro-pop meditation, part free-jazz freakout, part attic-ready dance odyssey, part interstellar doo-wop workout, it’s a disc that hints at a few lifetimes of gobbling up sounds from all directions. And beyond. DAVID BEVAN
6. Omar-S, It Can Be Done But Only I Can Do It
Omar-S is a little rough around the edges, and that’s exactly why the Detroit innovator shines on his second album, with a subtly self-propelling, thrown-together aesthetic. Released via his own FXHE imprint, the producer excels at creating tension-filled, percussive tracks, opting for tech-induced hypnosis over traditional melody. With the exception of “Look Hear Watch” (a wildly uncomfortable six-minutes of porn-reel audio over toneless bass), the album is a rapidly sewn masterwork of trodding, lulling synths, and a few honestly declared pop aspirations. P.P.
5. Gui Boratto, III
For his third record, Brazilian poptimism prism Gui Boratto proves he still has the boldest melodies in the “minimal” techno game, alternating between aggressive melancholy and evil sunshine. He doesn’t exactly break much ground that he didn’t cover on his last two equally gorgeous albums — still relying on a colorful, squelchy squish like the car running in that Arcade Fire song was a Tron light cycle. But there’s raw, post-punk-tinged bass lines that add a a little fuzz to his flutter and fireworks. CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN
4. Escort, Escort
This 17-piece orchestra boils down a solid decade of offbeat ’70s/early-’80s disco and funk to its most luxurious, decadent, sumptuous, and snowblind. It’s a 4 A.M. half-remembered Jack-and-Coke-and-Jack-FM fever-dream, with the music bouncing freely from academic homage to note-perfect borrowing: The roller-rink blip-glide of Tom Tom Club’s “Genius Of Love”(“CamÃ©leon Chameleon”), the rubber-band bass line of the People’s Choice’s “Do it Any Way You Wanna” (“Cocaine Blues”), or the gnarled funk-punk of the Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster” (“A Sailboat in the Moonlight”). C.W.
3. Azari & III, Azari & III
Toronto retrofutrists Azari & III practice a creative revisionism where Prince, Arthur Russell, and Phuture rub elbows around the 808 and 303. They helped tip the current deep-house revival back towards R&B with their 2009 singles “Reckless (With Your Love)” and “Hungry For The Power,” while on their debut album they expand that homage to the more soulful side of ’90s house. It’s the vocals that really set them apart, though, implanting a warm heart in skeletal acid tracks and leading tweaked-out club jams back towards the light. P.S.
2. The Field, Looping State Of Mind
For his 2007 debut, Axel Willner mastered the melancholy, half-heard-sample game just as Panda Bear rewrote the nostalgia playbook. So it’s no surprise that the bright new colors of this glistening ambient-disco epic are tuned into the “then” of now: the Drive soundtrack’s pastel synths, the Rapture’s euphoric post-punk tumble, and chillwave’s skipping moan. Those namesake loops waltz across multiple dance floors as wet throbs bleed into wistful drones and industrial repetition decays into shimmering ooze.C.W.
1. SBTRKT, SBTRKT
Dubstep — the awesomely loud American variation, at least — finally became a phenomenon in 2011. But that fist-pumping takeover also helped popularize “post-dubstep,” a headier alternative led by the masked man known only as SBTRKT. Here’s the thing, though: On the U.K. producer’s canny debut, his fusion of underground bass (“Pharoahs,” “Go Bang”) and instinctual dance pop (“Wildfire,” remixed by Drake, “Something Goes Right,” “Right Thing to Do”) hit just as hard as any wobbling bass drop.BRANDON SODERBERG