Lots of music stars have found more or less creative ways to use the Covid-19 lockdown while they’re unable to play live or attend studio sessions. From Christine & The Queens’ quirky broadcasts from her Paris studio, through Elton John’s bizarre honking in his back garden, to Bounty Killer and Beenie Man’s technicoloud clash from Kingston, Jamaica, everyone finds their own level. You can find many more like this in our KEF Culture Hub guide to the arts online.
But one star who’s had the most unequivocally successful lockdown is Charlotte Aitchison aka Charli XCX, who made her How I’m feeling Now album in the space of about a month, in isolation at her home in Los Angeles. She didn’t make it alone - it’s put together with a team of collaborators - and let her fans into the process with regular Instagram broadcasts as the process continued. But it’s a personal statement, and one of the best expressions yet of her hyper modern popstardom.
Partly, this is probably to do with the fact that the 27 year old is internet-native, a natural at communicating with an audience for whom Snapchat filters and TikTok quick edits are as much part of the vernacular as any slang or musical style could be. But also, more than just about any of her contemporaries, she incorporates this augmented reality existence into her aesthetic with great ease - thanks to her love of the kind of weird club music that has sprung up in the past decade in response to this information overload.
Executive produced by Aitchison with AG Cook of the PC Music collective and BJ Burton, with Dijon, Dylan Brady, Palmistry and former PC Music member Danny L Harle lending their digital production skills. None of these are standard pop producers by any means: they have come from an electronic underground scene which emphasises high concept intensification of the aesthetics of the digital era, extreme sound manipulation often with mind-boggling levels of fine detail, and a polysexual, gender-questioning presentation. It’s a galaxy away from the male-dominated electronica scene of decades past.
Aitchison has already immersed herself in this world with her previous mixtapes Pop 2 and Number 1 Angel. These included collaborations with the Scottish producer and PC Music associate SOPHIE who is a key figurehead in this electronica/pop world, having worked both with underground labels and mainstream artists from Madonna and rapper Vince Staples on down.
You can see similar collisions in the Venezuelan-American musician Arca’s work with Bjork, Kanye West, Frank Ocean and FKA twigs - and from singers like Caroline Poliachek, Dorian Electra and even Billie Eilish to rappers like Ayesha Erotica, it’s creating a whole new approach to pop. And this collectivity is something Aitchison is encouraging energetically: as well as opening up the production process of her record online, she’s making all the individual parts of it available to encourage young producers to have a go at remixing it.
And all this is just the tip of the iceberg: so if you enjoy the weird, wired world of Charli XCX, here are ten more musicians working on the wild frontier of high definition pop and experimental electronics.
English singer, songwriter and producer BABii is a relative newcomer but she’s already made a big impact, with two albums in 2019: her solo debut HiiDE, and XYZ, with the trio Gloo, consisting of her and young electronic sensations Kai Whiston and Igloodghost. By all accounts she’s got albums’ worth of further songs stored up too. Her usual style is spiky, cheeky and provocative - but as new single BEAST+ shows, she can do subtle (but still weird) too.
Berlin musician Rui Ho mixes “hardcore and folklore” in the most compelling way: musical and conceptual elements from her Chinese heritage are thrown into a blender with global pop, banging hard dance and high-detail electronics, for a giddy ride. Her DJ sets are some of the greatest encapsulations of the radical overground-underground aesthetic, and her productions are getting ever more accessible: with a new release this summer on Planet Mu showcasing her vocals and pop songwriting.
Daria Lourd from Memphis via Oakland makes Britney quoting aggro dance music, Transexual Rave Hymns and Nu Metal Toolz full of unpredictable dynamics, dark humour and relentless energy. For all the sardonic edge, though, this is huge fun, and clearly in love with the dancefloor: it’s the new radical aesthetic at its most direct and effective.
Cork on Ireland’s South Coast has always been a centre for dance music, and lately - with producer/writer Lighght as one of its leading lights - has increasingly looked to weirder electronic strands. Lighght’s music is highly literate, often featuring his own spoken narrations, and hist production extremely accomplished. But there’s always a melodic edge in keeping with global club experiments that keeps it endlessly infectious, and saves it from ever being just an intellectual exercise.
Much of the pop-influenced “deconstructed club” music takes in global influences, Chicagoan Ariel Zetina is inspired by her Belizean heritage. Her music is, broadly speaking, techno, but the Latin/Caribbean syncopations are unmistakeable, and once again there is a wonderful pop sensibility here - just listen for how the autotuned vocal refrain rises out of the relentless groove in Water Nymph.
Lila Tirando a Violeta
The globalism of club music isn’t just about absorbing elements: there are outposts all over the planet. Uruguay has a particularly thriving scene with Lila Tirando a Violeta a leading light. Her productions mix gothic pop, traditional local sounds and the most extraordinary cutting edge bass music.
Pennsylvanian in New York Eartheater produces some of the most disturbing but addictive sounds in this area. Her visuals, costumes, dance and performance are part and parcel with her arch style and haunting music. With the highly influential PAN label behind her, for all the scariness of her work, it isn’t beyond the limits of imagination to see her crossing over like an FKA Twigs or similar.
As with any good underground scene, the glitched pop world is extremely collaborative. And Londoner producing since 2014, Klahrk is a serial collaborator - thus this release from last year is credited to “Klahrk, Roxas and Script featuring Keloid”. As with much of his work, Klahrk’s production is scrambled and distorted, but for all the zapping jaggedness it still retains its connection to the dancefloor, and Keloid’s rapping here shows this is music deeply rooted in populist styles as well as experimentation.
Washington DC composer Reba Fay aka Swan Meat is one of the great exemplars of the new aesthetic. Inspired by video games and digital life, but also complex issues of body image, in her work “online” and “IRL” are not separate places but part of a continuum. This video by Rick Farin also expresses the psychedelic and vivid exploration of these ideas: it’s heavily inspired by Jesse “Doon” Kanda who has collaborated with FKA Twigs, Arca and Björk and is a keystone figure in this world.
Danny L Harle
Since his separation from PC Music, Harle has focused on European “Hard Dance” styles. The pounding melodic intensity of happy hardcore and hard trance are generally the province of working class scenes, formerly ignored by hip media, and often regarded with derision or sarcasm - but with his “Harlecore” movement, Harle approaches them with absolute sincerity. And it’s paying dividends, with even one of the world’s biggest popstars, Ed Sheeran signing up. Sheeran is often looked on as bland, but whether you like this remix or not, it’s anything but!
Cover Image: Justin Lloyd / Newspix via Getty Images
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs