That was the year

Call me old-fashioned, but I actually like most of the music I write about. So compiling each year's "best-of" list is a delight, not a chore. Sure, there's lots of bad stuff out there — horrible shit, in fact. But the good work that makes it through the din of mediocrity makes it all worthwhile.

And looking back over a year's worth of tunes gives the recent past some weight it didn't immediately have. In techno, it's 1995 that brings meaning to memory, when Berlin's Basic Channel (and everything associated with it, including the artists, the label, the brand) morphed into Chain Reaction, and then 1996, when it launched the murky and immersive Burial Mix imprint, still the most compelling template for all pitched down, digital dubs to follow.

Instead of the individual albums and singles themselves, I've listed the top dozen labels that kicked out the most incredible product of the year. Nothing revolutionary; just pure techno investigation. You follow the label, find the sound you like, identify the artist (or sometimes not, with so many hiding behind bewildering pseudonyms) ... and just crank those knobs clockwise.

As always, the list is built on a foundation of subjective imperfection, and leans heavily toward dub and dread techno sounds from the UK, where the current action is. Minimal, if you care, is over — it's in rapid freefall toward institutional narcissism and increasing irrelevancy. We feel sad for the loss but still spill whiskey while dancing gleefully over its not-so-pretty corpse. It was nice while it lasted, baby. Now, in order of achievement, on with the new and improved show:

SKULL DISCO — The undisputed princes of an organic movement that brings techno and more roots-based music into low-end unity are Sam Shackleton and Appleblim (Laurie Osborne) of the London- and Bristol-based funky bass project, Skull Disco. They destroyed everything in their path with badass black jams like "The Rope Tightens," "Death is Not Final," "Grit" on the brilliant Soundboy's Gravestone Gets Desecrated by Vandals double CD and double-12-inch remix pack that ended a four-year run of venturesome soul-dub partnership. Plus, degenerate cover art by illustrator Zeke Clough is mad as hell, authentically hardcore.

HESSLE AUDIO — Tight, house-inspired dubstep with warm, layered vocals and wild effects on top of junglist shimmer 'n' shake — and hard and deep bass thrusts for good measure. Pangaea's "Router/You & I" is both romantic and tough, musical kin to similarly out there local producers KDJ and Piranhahead. Tracks by Ramadanman (one of the label co-owners), Untold and Romania's TRG (featuring remixes by Martyn, who also had an incredible year on his fledgling 3024 label) are true bad blood, like sex in your soul.

ECHOSPACE — Rod Modell and Steve Hitchell have been on a serious skyward trajectory since 2007, and even sped up production activity in 2008 by releasing a CD of remixes of Juan Atkins' classic "Starlight," side projects by Intrusion and CV313, and a reshaped, remastered, re-engineered version of DeepChord's 2002 Vantage Isle sessions. Combustible, brooding techno art without beginning or end.

MODERN LOVE — Manchester label affiliated with Boomkat and Pelicanneck Records had another sweet year with new groovin' dubs by Andy Stott, Claro Intelecto, MLZ and Move D. But what really gave the label weight was its release of limited edition white label dance 12's by Unknown/Hate, freaky-fractured mind-body beat music said to be from anonymous hardcore tapes recovered from '93 or thereabouts. One of the sides contains the best title of any single this year: "Pretty Boys Don't Survive Up North."

HYPERDUB — Still hot after two straight years of releasing what were the smartest, loveliest full-lengths in ambitious global clubland — namely, the self-titled Burial and Untrue LPs — Steve Goodman's South London power center contributed Zomby's double 12-inch pack, King Midas Sound (featuring the Bug's Kevin Martin and including a remix by Ann Arbor's Dabrye) and his own Kode9 productions, one of them ("Konfusion") with longtime psychotropic audiovisual collaborator, the Spaceape.

SMALLVILLE — Hamburg-based label had probably the most spectacular debut of the year with Move D (aka David Moufang, who has been releasing records since '94) and Benjamin Brunn's Songs from the Beehive LP, not to mention the duo's follow-up, the New Horizons EP. Sophisticated techno also influenced by the pillow talk of Detroit house music and mind games found in space jazz. Oh, so nice. Hamburg homeboy Sten (Peter Kersten, aka Lawrence) also kept his elegant grooves rising with the Squares EP.

ECHOCORD — This Danish imprint puts out heady, danceable deep techno, rough stuff like Detroiter Mike Huckaby's remix of Mikkel Metal's Peaks and Troughs and suburban spaceman Quantec's Berlin-Detroit, grayscale-glamorous Unusual Signals LP. Score an extra point for colored vinyl releases and classy graphics.

MULE ELECTRONIC — Japanese label with just the right touch marries techno, house and ambient tones to create crafty new electronic world music. Featuring contributions from Sweden's Minilogue, Japan's Koss, the ever-present Lawrence and the electoacoustic find of the year, the Imps, a real time band with electronics that creates tasty dream-jazz vignettes as if for a surrealist ballet.

TECTONIC — New releases from Bristol by Skream, Peverelist, 2562 (aka Dave Huismans, who also records under the name A Made Up Sound) and RSD gave dubstep the swift kick in the ass it needed by building sexual heat on the bottom end and letting the high end drift into radiant abstraction. The hits were everywhere, especially the mighty "Techno Dread" (2562) and the rankin' "Midnight Oil / Joyride," the latest single by label owner Pinch (Rob Ellis).

GHOSTLY INTERNATIONAL/SPECTRAL — It was a year of renewed pop energy for the Ann Arbor-based label celebrating 10 years in the fast track next summer. Colorfully adorned millennial newbies included Michna, the Sight Below, the Chap and School of Seven Bells. But the best record to come out on the franchise this year was by Spectral pillar, Todd Osborn, whose Osborne debut full length went deeper into the mind of the Detroit night than all others combined.

12K — Taylor Duepree's inventive Brooklyn-based label project never fails to sound weirdly pristine, as on his own remastered Northern solo effort; on Sawako's Bitter Sweet; or especially on the violently beautiful Ocean Fire, the latter a collab between legendary modern classical composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (known for Yellow Magic Orchestra as well as his Academy Award winning soundtrack work on The Last Emperor) and the planetary Max/MSP/Jitter-guitarist Christopher Willits.

CARAVAN — The future of body music takes another turn through Bristol, where ground culture's apparently not afraid to trade in multiple inspirations and creative file sharing. Crossover dub, two-step garage, grime, house, techno, rave and seemingly every underground sound worth reimagining can be heard on new records by Emptyset, October (tip: "Houston/Listen, Move, Dance") and TG's Feign EP, which includes a remix by Markus Guentner.

And we would be remiss not to include more than honorable mention to the sounds found this year on Anticipate, Barge, Meanwhile, Millions of Moments (which released Modell's sublime remix of local treasure Aaron Carl's Crucified), Punch Drunk, Tempa, Touch, Type, Vakant, WerkDiscs, and International Freakshow (the latter not just because we love the name but for the fact that the criminally under-regarded minimalist Jens Zimmermann dropped four hypnotic drumzzz-driven jams — the C30 double EP — on the label this summer. Happy New Year, freaks everywhere and much weird love from Detroit!

Subterraneans is a column devoted to Detroit dance culture. Send comments to [email protected]