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December 14, 2001

++ Top 10 Broken Beat

++ I'm no fan of the end of the year. Honestly, the holidays cause as much stress as pleasure, and the days just get shorter, colder and wetter. But even worse, the end of the year is Top 10 season, the time when fans and critics are supposed to ante up their lists of favorite releases from the 12 months prior. And I hate top-10 lists.

Maybe it's irrational, or maybe I'm just a waffling, noncommittal noncombatant. I certainly don't have the argumentative streak that drove John Cusack's and Jack Black's characters to assemble their hipper-than-thou collections of obscurities in "High Fidelity." And without a doubt, Top 10 season brings about a climate of one-upmanship, where the only surefire cards-up-the-sleeve are total obscurantism — citing Bhobba Blodgett and the Hobgoblins' limited-to-63, lathe-cut acetate eight-inch, say — or counterintuitive irony, thus rating Britney Spears' mass-marketed, sub-par pablum right up there with an uncontestable masterpiece like Radiohead's Amnesiac.

The final problem with top 10s is that they're a classic case of apples and oranges. Can you really compare Fennesz, Radiohead, Ryan Adams and Domu? I really wanted to put Techno Animal in for this year, but that meant I had to bump Timeblind, the closest sonic relation in my top 20 or so, but still a damned fine album. And there was no way I was leaving His Name Is Alive out, which took another slot. Oddly, in fact, my Default Top10 list includes as much rock as electronic or experimental music. But does that mean that Ekkehard Ehler's brilliant Plays Albert Ayler was not as good as Ryan Adams' Gold? Hell no — but for whatever reason, I've found myself in a more anthemic, nostalgic mode as the year wanes, and so the rock seems to get a boost. (It would be interesting to see how top-10 tastes varied if lists were compiled in July.)

But if I restrict myself to genre, everything gets a whole lot easier. The genre I played more than any other this year was the sound of West London-centered broken beat, alongside broken beat-influenced 2-step. And while there were dozens upon dozens of quality records that came out of that scene this year, I can confidently reel off 10 of them that were far and away the best of the bunch. Well, except for the other dozen or so that I may not have thought of while compiling this list. And the ones that I really, really, really wanted to include but arbitrarily didn't. And Wookie's mind-blowing remix of Jammin's "Kinda Funky," which I didn't include because I only got it two weeks ago, and is that really enough time for critical distance? And so on... do you see my agony? Then without further ado:

Top 10 (or 12) Broken Beat and 2-step Records of 2001, In No Particular Order Except For the First Listing, Which Was, Hands Down, the Low-End, Bottom Heavy, Unsteady Swing Joint of the Year:

++ Sticky Feat, Ms Dynamite, "Booo!" (London): It's so rare it might as well be harbinged by comets when a riddim and a vocal dovetail so snugly — and that on top of the fact that each could stand on its own and still earn a slot at the top of the chart. Ms Dynamite, a 19-year-old London MC, runs from ragga ruffness to a diva's downcast croon in the space of a breath; she channels Erykah Badu and Beenie Man, she turns the toaster's real-time soundreel of the banal into a multi-dimensional invocation, culling street culture, rhythm and introspection into a seamless but perforated flow. And then underneath, Sticky's fractured 2-step — or rather, not beneath but winding around Ms Dynamite's vocal, clasping it in a tight-fingered grip of hi-hat hits and rimshots, the bass pulsing like a vein in the heel of the hand. It couldn't be more captivating — but when I'm playing the record out, it's still a toss-up between the original and Medieval Hooligan's Longshank Remix, which strips the rhythm back to an electro-ragga clip, lulling you for a deceptive second before turning it all inside out, exposing some twisted salsa innards in the process. Your hips twitch involuntary as you run for the door, then back to the floor. It is the fucking bomb.

++ Maddslinky, "Dark Swing" (Sirkus): The unstoppable Zed Bias earned his slot in the year's top 10 thanks to any number of stellar 2-step tracks and remixes, but his Maddslinky single for Sirkus stands out for its unruly bassline and helter-skelter swing. While lots of heads charted his remix of Two Banks of Four's "Hook and a Line," that relatively straightforward track comes nowhere near the controlled chaos of "Dark Swing." Bit by bit, the latter track builds into a devastating wave of sound: it starts with a heavily syncopated rhythm built from samples of snares run backwards, swells into a gloomy chord progression reminiscent of darkcore drum 'n' bass, and crests and breaks with a succession of sub-bass explosions and strangely delicate rave stabs. A well-worn soul sample — "All right, OK, all right fellas, one more time" — punctuates the din, like a pipsqueak accomplice to the wave of devastation that's unleashed. A DJ I played with in Montreal called it his "crackhead track," but that easy demonization doesn't come close to capturing the ominous power of the tune, which offered irrefutable proof that 2-step is anything but a lightweight genre.

++ Stacey Pullen, "Vertigo" (Science): It's an unexpected choice, but there's no denying the track's weird staying power. Detroit's techno-jazz man Pullen combines fat, rain-drenched analog chords à la John Beltran or Black Dog Productions with lumbering breakbeats and an actual opera vocal. By all the rules of dance music and general good taste, it shouldn't work, but miraculously it does. He fractures the vocals into a million frozen bits and wields the bassline like a wrought-iron scythe. And then at the end, all the elements braid into a single, silken rope and pull themselves up and away.

++ 4 Hero, "Hold It Down," from Creating Patterns (Talkin' Loud): Think you know soul? I'm still digesting most of this album, but this track stands out. If you've heard it once, you'll never forget it; you could be at the darkest corner of a strange club in an unfamiliar city halfway across the world, but the second the DJ dropped this, you'd feel at home. Dego McFarlane, mastermind behind West London's 2000 Black label, has crafted what might as well be the blueprint for broken beat with this track's fleet-footed, stop-start shuffle rhythm, built of off-beat snares and handclaps so easy, so intimate, they might as well come from about three feet behind you. A loping Rhodes line wets it all down, and Lady Alma's command to "Hold It Down" is so lovingly reassuring it's almost maternal.

++ Ibex, Macamba EP (Planet E): Tony Olivierra, brother of the Detroit Escalator Company's Neil Olivierra, fuses Brazilian percussion with the analog soul of classic Detroit techno. The formula's nothing new, but these four tracks are made with such finesse that they've become a staple in my box whether I'm playing house, techno, broken-beat or even downtempo. The gems here are both on the B-side: "The Last Laugh" takes a disco bassline, splashes it with analog chords and a phased vocal sample, and peppers it with the skippiest house rhythm of the year. The whippoorwill trill and stepping-out horn line are the bows that wrap it all up, just daring you not to tear into it. "Terra Firma" offers the inverse to that track's exuberance, with a moody chord progression wrapped around a crisp, hi-hat heavy rhythm that would do Moodymann proud.

++ Chaka Demus & Pliers, "Redemption" garage mix by Synchronik (white): I found this record in the bins at New York's Breakbeat Science, and I have no idea what it is; five of the six tracks here are synth-heavy lover's rock reggae. But I played this mix more than any other 2-step track this year; the bouncing bassline, gunshot-dub snare, and cheeky keyboard counterpoint make for the perfect combination of ragga spring and 2-step swing. An alto-voiced singer urges "One love/ People live in unity" (making this an ironic counterpoint to Strictly Legit's "Gunman," with which it mixes seamlessly), but the real vocal energy is in his partner's tenor counterpoint and staccato toasts. The fact that I've never seen or heard this track since only adds to its charm: an exemplary product of white-label culture, it's one of those fantastic tunes that only a handful of people may ever know. That's lamentable in some aspects, but at the same time, doesn't everybody love a secret?

++ Afronaught, "Work It" from Shapin' Fluid (Apollo): 2001 saw the evolution of broken beat from a genre dominated by singles to one that could adapt the album form, with quality releases from IG Culture's New Sector Movements, Seiji's Homecookin', and Bugz in the Attic member Orin Walter's Afronaught. But this track stands far above the rest of Shapin' Fluid's three platters of vinyl: Walters populates a 2-step template with crashing snares and turns the intensity dial way, way up: the resulting rhythm emphatically commands you to move, even as Tittla, in a thick English/Caribbean patois, enjoins you to "Work it, jerk it." Molten bass swirls beneath the breakbeat floorboards, threatening to suck you down and melt your every cell. 2-step was never meant to be this messy; thank goodness someone forgot to tell that to Afronaught.

++ Julie Dexter, "The Plan" (Main Squeeze): Taking a detour around his usual cubist funk frenzy, IG Culture constructs a taut, stuttering rhythm out of blunted kick drum, rimshot and gliding hi-hat. It opens up with a swirl of piano and a rush of Dexter's vocal run in reverse, and for the duration of the track you'll be caught between this push and pull, never certain whether you're moving forward or backward, like a fleeting glimpse of chrome wheel on the highway. "Gonna do it," chirps Dexter, as mutated g-funk leads drip down around her. For the verse she breaks through to a clearing where her vocals stand starkly illuminated, and then the weeds close in around her as she slips into scat syllables and everything goes blurry again, sinking into deeper and deeper shades of green.

++ Landslide, "Hear My People" (Hospital): Such a simple track, but sometimes that's all you need: a pared-down 2-step rhythm sampled off live drums, a descending Rhodes line, sunshine-bright arpeggio, and Loretta Heywood's invocation of the title phrase, as earnest and unassuming as a pair of upturned palms awaiting salvation.

++ Horsepower Productions, "One You Need" (Turn U On), Horsepower Productions, "Electro Bass" (Turn U On), Horsepower Productions, "Vigilante" (Tempa): The Horsepower crew represents the whole South London hyperdub community, who rightly could have populated this year's top 10 all on their own: labels like Tempa, Ghost, and Shelf Life turned out some of the most exhilarating low-end records of the year. For "One You Need," on Turn U On — the 2-step imprint of old school junglist, No U-Turn's Nico Sykes — Horsepower flex gut-wrenching bass, panning analog eruptions, a vintage Chicago house vocal and a snippet of blues guitar so anachronistic it could be Thomas Brinkmann. They drop Wurlitzers, sped-up vocals dripping in vibrato, rippling keys and a heavy dub backbeat. The Eurythmics face off against Timbaland. Slippage becomes a new stasis. The anthemic "Electro Bass" is closer to Landslide's percolating pop, but for the wobbly sub-bass and dubby backslap, which collide like a meeting of classic hardcore and 2001 Force Tracks dub techno. The Tempa tracks are just as tough, but smoother, with heat-distorted keys, a rattling percussion line and more of that undulating, unrelenting bass. Someday this is going to sound quaint, when it's been copied a hundred times — most of the attempts will fail and fall flat, a few will launch other possibilities — but I can't imagine it losing its edge. And right now, it's as though we're still learning how to hear it.

Default Top 10

Herbert, Bodily Functions (Soundslike/!K7)

Radiohead, Amnesiac (Capitol/EMI)

Björk, Vespertine (Elektra)

Matmos, A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure (Matador)

His Name Is Alive, Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth (4AD/Beggars)

Fennesz, Endless Summer (Mego)

Domu, Up+Down (Archive)

Ryan Adams, Gold (Lost Highway)

Chris Lee, Plays & Sings Torch'd Songs, Charivari Hymns & Oriki Blue-Marches (Smells Like)

Techno Animal, Brotherhood of the Bomb (Matador)


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