All signals — analog, digital, auditory, sensory — lead to and from Detroit. No other city remains as dedicated to the connectivity of mind, body and 4/4 beats. London? Berlin? Los Angeles? New York? Sure, those are all filled with sexy club life, we'll humbly grant that … and more! But for sheer day-to-day local inspiration and global influence, this vast, postindustrial, near-mythic place is the space for the creation of electronically enabled music. And it's what we rhapsodize about this time of year, when we scan our feeble memory banks and all our stacked vinyl, CDs and little blue compressed MP3 folders, looking for the best music of its kind from the last 12 months.
What else can make us so giddy (well, frozen lemon-flavored vodka helps!) as an otherwise bleak 2009 — darkened with economic collapse, escalating war and the sobering realization that one-half of the country cares little whether the other gets basic health care — thankfully disappears into history? We still have our sonic visionaries, and they continue to produce on a grand scale. They walk among us — one foot in the present, the other in the future, largely undetectable but still immeasurably cool. And micro-attentive critics in the music subgenre blogosphere are noticing, as they have since the 1980s, sprinkling Detroit respect in liberal doses on "best of" lists across the planet. We offer a toast to all the young dudes, glammy chicks, lovers and dancers with impeccable taste in Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Paris, San Francisco and, yes, Williamsburg. And we'll reciprocate by throwing our own picks — including recordings, performances, labels on the upswing, and noteworthy emerging trends — atop the fire that comes straight outta the mighty fucking D.
We've reduced our roundup to an essential three categories this year. Remix the order any way you like … but may their contents burn in your hearts and souls forever.
Detroit theatricality: Surprised? You needn't be. While most of us were worried about simply getting paid, artists in Detroit were paying it back. Exciting new projects were started locally — for instance, Macho City, a smart discoid duo (Mike Trombley and Scott Zacharias) — bringing fun, forbidden colors and international talent (Nancy Fortune and the retro-futurist rediscovery of the year, Bernard Favre's late-1970s Black Devil Disco Club) back to an impoverished creative club scene. Aaron-Carl, one of the godsons of funky-dirty house to whom young producers around the world owe an increasing debt, launched W.A.R.M.T.H., a D-based collective that aims to go where no man or woman has dared go before, bringing a crossover of peace, harmony and good times in the ego-driven, fiercely independent techno and house scenes.
Carl Craig was reestablished as artistic director for the Movement Festival, an inspired move by promoters Paxahau, who continue to impress with growth and business savvy after a dozen years of formal promotions. Ditto for Adriel Thornton (aka Fantastique) and his 13 years of Family (and other FreshCorp-related) party productions. And another sweatbox institution, Funk Night, only got better with the addition of live big-band jazz, courtesy of Will Sessions and support from the emerging Few Records imprint. Dethlab and Haute2Death reminded us monthly, if not more frequently, that art and design, guitars and synths, and jet boys and jet girls dressed in black will never go out of fashion.
Detroit hyperreality: No surprise here. Detroit producers worked their asses off all year, making original tracks, remixing others, touring the world, making intuitive connections and inspiring new scenes. Let's start with the ornery brilliance of Omar S (real name Alex O. Smith), who refuses to play in Detroit, but draws lines around buildings at 5 a.m. in Berlin and London. His audacious Fabric 45 mix-CD included only his own tracks from his homegrown FXHE label (based in the Conant-Eight Mile area). When told that minimal global all-star Ricardo Villalobos had recently done the same for the same series, he responded: "Ricardo who?" Hey, we love you, Alex, you crazy bastard.
Underground Resistance techno original Robert Hood put out the massive Minimal Nation comp. And perpetually off-the-radar house music prince Rick Wilhite had two classics re-released by the Netherlands' Rushhour — "Soul Edge" and "The Godson," featuring remixes by Theo Parrish and Moodymann (aka Kenny Dixon Jr.). Also making the interplanetary rounds was Scott Grooves' "Detroit 808" on Groove's own Natural Midi label, as well as three platters on Kai Alce's NDATL Muzik that celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fabled Detroit Music Institute (the artists were initially listed as unknown — in anonymous, Detroit white-label tradition — but have been revealed as Mike Huckaby, Derrick May, Parrish and Alce himself. The busy, ever-productive Parrish could also be found remixing DFA's "45:33," while Dixon (just call him KDJ) released the soul-jazz-funk full-length Anotha Black Sunday. Ann Arbor's Ghostly International/Spectral Sound powerhouse rolled closer toward world domination with stellar releases from the Sight Below (here's a tip: check out their Murmur EP, including heavenly remix by arctic Norway's Biosphere), new wave shoegazer local star Deastro (Sterling Heights' Randolph Chabot) and various digital only comps (featuring School of Seven Bells, Matthew Dear, Dabrye and the grossly underappreciated Dykehouse).
Detroit soul & inspiration: No, not everything great about the ninth year of the bloody new millennium came with a Detroit fix. The fertile and increasingly funky dubstep scenes in Bristol, London and in the north of England largely remain outside the magic circle. For those not familiar, we push hard the virtues of King Midas Sound (the latest project of the Bug/Techno Animal's Kevin Martin); nearly everything on Kode9's South London's Hyperdub label, which released the sweetest, wonkiest love-dub single of the year — "Aidy's Girl is a Computer." It included a B-side by Detroit's Kyle Hall, with D-Town phenomenological essences on top and bass vibrations below. (How many times do we have to say it? This is three years running for inclusion of King Midas on our best-of list and the shit produced there simply does not fail!) Also hot and D-inspired: "Ghosts Have a Heaven" by London's Actress; Berlin-based Redshape's The Dance Paradox LP; the dark, dubby, bewitchingly entertaining releases by Manchester-based projects Demdike Stare, Pendle Coven and Millie & Andrea (pay attention, fans of Basic Channel and Deepchord); London-to-Berlin transplant Scuba's "Speak/Negative" sides; and A Made Up Sound's "Rework/Closer" and 2562's full-length Unbalance, both projects fronted by low-flying Dutchman Dave Huismans. And two for the househeads who think they've heard everything: Joy Orbison's "Hyph Mngo" and Pangaea's "Memories." Free your stuck-up asses, divas; your minds will follow.
We would be remiss to end the year without a Happy New Year shout-out to all the various artists we support and admire. We wish you prosperity in the studio and raging love on dance floors everywhere. Like it or not, 2010, here we come!Walter Wasacz writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org