The 7 Best DJ Mixes of May 2020

Philip Sherburne

Every month, Philip Sherburne listens to a whole lot of mixes so you only have to listen to the best ones.

After another month of lockdown, the idea of clubbing feels like a distant dream. However, more than ever, innovative artists are expanding the possibilities of streaming media. Preparing to interview Arca recently, I stayed up late watching one of the Venezuelan electronic musician’s periodic livestreams from her apartment, and I was struck by how she created a new form out of a collection of familiar ideas—a dynamic hybrid DJ set, live performance, talk show, and chatroom.

The sets that I’ve highlighted this month are more traditional in form, but most of them still wouldn’t be the same without the context of the pandemic. Mike Servito’s Resident Advisor podcast was made in response to two major cancellations on his schedule. Stellar OM Source’s Crack mix is imbued with the nervousness of a routine thrown suddenly in disarray. And Erika de Casier recorded her Boiler Room performance in her bedroom. Some of these sets also use the current crisis as an opportunity: Laurel Halo’s collaborative, shape-shifting mix ventures far beyond dance music’s usual limits to imagine the creative possibilities of collective action.

Mike Servito – RA.730

Like just about every other festival this summer, Movement Detroit was forced to postpone, and thus so was No Way Back, a legendary annual afterparty that carries ravers well into Monday. (Instead, Detroit label Interdimensional Transmissions and the Bunker NY held a 36-hour No Way Back livestream over Memorial Day weekend.) Detroit native Mike Servito has been attending the festival since its inception in 2000, and he typically holds down the venerable 10 a.m. Monday slot at No Way Back. In tribute, he turned in a Resident Advisor podcast dedicated to the fierce spirit of Midwestern house and techno. It’s a characteristically energetic set for him: bouncy, clean-lined, and sparkling with crisp, high-end details, with the faintest psychedelic tinge. But it’s also clouded with gray; even as it propels, it broods. After slipping and strutting across lively tracks from Shake, Rick Wade, and the late Mike Huckaby, it builds to a stunning, cathartic close, seguing from Moodymann’s 1997 classic “Dem Young Sconies” into a pumping trio of tracks from ’80s house veteran Lil Louis, including his timeless “French Kiss.” Detroit hustles harder, they say, and that determination is encoded into every spring-loaded beat and impeccable transition of this hopeful, resilient mix.

Laurel Halo – Public Knowledge: Carrier Bag of Music

Sci-fi author Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1986 essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” celebrates collective stories rather than lone heroes. (It extends from a feminist anthropological theory arguing that culture was born not from hunting but from gathering, and that the first tool was not a spear but a receptacle for carrying food.) Laurel Halo’s “Public Knowledge: Carrier Bag of Music” follows suit: More collage than DJ mix, it features all unreleased material—sketches, drafts, field recordings—from 30-odd artists, including DJ Python, Lyra Pramuk, and Julia Holter. There are slow, skulking beats and quick-stepping drum’n’bass rhythms and long stretches of drone; it’s stitched together with spoken-word snippets that deepen the abiding sense of mystery and sometimes lend a faintly absurdist air. (As an unidentified voice intones, “Dogs don’t care if you call them bastard, as long as you say the word ‘bastard’ in a soft voice.”) The fact that Halo’s collaborators are listed only in order of their first appearance reinforces an implicit message: Individual egos are secondary to the meanings and connections in these jumbled contents. At a moment when we are all crying out for meaningful stories—Which way forward? What’s next? What the hell is happening?—Halo and co.’s exploratory sonic fiction seems like a fitting response. And its unpredictable contrasts—going from soothing to numb to anxious in the blink of an eye—feel like an accurate representation of these strange days.

Auscultation – The Stages of Acceptance Mix

Joel Shanahan’s third album under his Auscultation alias, III, is an ambient-techno record that refuses to settle calmly into the background. Shanahan has been candid about his depression, and the album feels like music borne of healing, the fruit of hard emotional labor. Likewise, “The Stages of Acceptance Mix,” the Portland musician’s set for Self-Titled Mag, is explicitly about grief. A selection of what Shanahan describes as “music that processes dread in different ways,” it’s shot through with conflicted feelings. Cool, calming synth tones alternate with sandblasted passages of white noise; occasional passages of techno provide pulse-quickening points of clarity between long stretches of fog. Some bits, like an extended series of metallic shrieks over industrial-grade distortion, are truly harrowing—but even in the set’s darkest moments, the overall spirit is less frightening than cleansing.

Stellar OM Source – Crack Mix 355

Christelle Gualdi, aka Stellar OM Source, quit music shortly after her acclaimed 2013 album Joy One Mile, her life thrown off course by a succession of personal upheavals. Over the years, she started again in fits and starts, and in December, she fully returned with the EP I See Through You (for Dekmantel). Its release prefaced what should have been a packed calendar of live dates. Now, in her Crack mix, you can hear her assessing a landscape made strange. The set winds between new-age ambient, cosmic grandeur, and various shades of grime, techno, and dub; she ventures into free jazz from Pharoah Sanders and even an Irish jig. She doesn’t so much travel from point A to point B as move in tentative circles, periodically testing the stability of the ground around her. Though it ends on a note of cautious optimism (Tom of England’s lyrical, Arthur Russell-inspired “Sex Monk Blues”), the mix’s restless motion and unsettled mood convey a feeling of being boxed in by questions, none of which have obvious answers.

Physical Therapy – HNYPOT 366: Car Culture Remissions

Physical Therapy—Queens’ Daniel Fisher, head of the Allergy Season label—has the rare ability to bring humor to his music without cheapening it. That’s particularly true of this Honey Sound System set from his Car Culture alias, an oddball mix that spins together easy listening, trip-hop, video-game composer Tomoko Sasaki, and Fisher’s own edits of songs by Fleetwood Mac, Minnie Ripperton, and country singer-songwriter Mac Davis. The music is unfailingly slow, bucolic, and gently trippy—music for driving around with no real destination in mind (or better yet, parking and hot-boxing). Spoken interludes and found sounds add to the disorientation, giving the set the feel of spinning through stations at the far end of the radio dial at night. One of those snippets makes for a real chef’s-kiss comedy moment: “I like music, I like the ’80s too, but what I hate is Madonna,” gripes a teenage boy. “I hate Madonna! She’s stupid!” What follows? Madonna’s dreamy, William Orbit-produced “Mer Girl”—the instrumental version, of course.

Erika de Casier – Boiler Room: Streaming From Isolation

The Danish singer Erika de Casier’s 2019 debut album was almost deliriously sedate. Mostly produced by the Regelbau collective’s DJ Central, it traded that crew’s typical deep house for a dreamy, almost ambient take on late-’90s and early-’00s R&B. De Casier recently turned in an equally low-key performance for Boiler Room’s “Streaming From Isolation” series, an ongoing fundraiser featuring artists in their homes. In the video, de Casier sits behind her desk, framed by houseplants, a lava lamp, and a rack of clothes; occasionally, she’ll tap the keys of her sampler. It might not seem like that would make for gripping viewing, but de Casier is a quietly magnetic performer: Head bowed, eyes closed, she gives the impression of having shut out everything around her. That goes equally for slow jams like “Intimate” and more upbeat songs like the flirtatious “Good Time.” She really sells it, and anything more theatrical than this quotidian setup would threaten to eclipse the soft power of her high, breathy voice. The domestic scene is the perfect fit for music that feels as unmediated as a page from someone’s journal.

Guedra Guedra – A Brief History of Morocco’s Electronic Music

Moroccan electronic music rarely receives exposure in Western media, which makes this set from Casablanca producer and DJ Guedra Guedra especially welcome. Spanning 1992 and 2006, its tracks trace successive waves of Moroccan electronic fusion, in which traditional and popular styles (raï, gnawa, shaabi) were interwoven with jungle, dub, hip-hop, and techno. Marrakeshi group Ahlam layer breakbeats and acid with acoustic guitars and rapid-fire hand percussion; Moulay Youssef Adel, aka U-cef, stirs up a whirlwind of filtered funk guitars, chants, and desert blues; Toires’ “Haitama” concludes the set with North African gaïta over droning, psychedelic dark ambient. (More than just a survey, the mix really flows as a continuous whole, which is nice.) Occasionally, foreign collaborators make appearances, too; the UK’s Talvin Singh pairs with Bacchir Attar, of former Rolling Stones collaborators Master Musicians of Jajouka, on acid drum’n’bass, and Bill Laswell’s ambient-dub signature is apparent in his work with the Moroccan singer Sapho. Still, the feel of the music is proudly homegrown, and this mix doubles as a kind of crate-diggers’ Rosetta Stone to styles seldom heard outside North Africa. For wanderlusting, would-be travelers in lockdown, it’s just the ticket.

Originally Appeared on Pitchfork