The last couple of choices have just been submitted, and so it’s now time to share the Japanese scene’s favourite tracks of the past year. As with the 2015 edition I’ve added links to as many of the tracks as possible, hopefully helping those who want to hunt down the unfamilar choices.

In an effort to keep mine unbiased I’ve ruled out any tracks that appeared on In Praise of Shadows. Although that made things tricky (had the compilation appeared on a different label all of my choices would very likely have come from there) it was good fun to dig through the rest of the year’s releases. The three I’ve gone for are still excellent tracks of course, and would have been challenging for a place in the list either way.

As always, I hope you enjoy the look back – with such a strong year of releases it’d be great to see some Horser choices in the comments, too.

GULD (NRGetic Romancer)

  1. Aryx – Aurora (GULD remix) [TYFTH]
  2. GULD – Perkele! [TYFTH]
  3. Alek Száhala – Enuma Elish [TYFTH]

Hyphen (SOLIDBOX RECORDS)

  1. Substanced – Afterlife Penance (Transcend & Cyrax remix) [FINRG]
  2. Transcend & Cyrax – Unleashed (Substanced remix)
  3. Grimsoul – Badass Geeks (Lost Faith & Spectrum remix) [ReBuild Music]

Alabaster (M&C Recordings)

  1. Synthwulf – Not Your Angel (Synthwulf bootleg) [Justice Hardcore]
  2. Alchemiist – Triple X Rated [FINRG]
  3. Morita Yuuhei – The Ghost [TYFTH]

Morita Yuuhei (Illegal Wave Records)

  1. Nomic – Caldera [TYFTH]
  2. Substanced – Rise From The Darkness [FINRG]
  3. Kokomochi feat. Setsunann – AWAKE (Hyphen remix)

Kokomochi (FutureProof Sounds)

  1. Substanced – Rise From The Darkness (Original mix) [FINRG]
  2. Alabaster – Galaxy [TYFTH]
  3. Hyphen – Hell & Heaven [FutureProof Sounds]

Raqhow (CODEX, Freeform Bros)

  1. Morita Yuuhei – Now or Never
  2. Kokomochi – Iron Sky [FutureProof Sounds]
  3. Kevin Energy & Cube::Hard – Voice of Carme (Transcend remix)

NONAKA+CHIN (SPREEMO, Freeform Bros)

  1. Alias A.K.A. – Techn8 (Qygen Remix) [ALIAS A.K.A.]
  2. Nomic – Shattered [ReBuild Music]
  3. Substanced – Into the Light (Original mix) [FINRG]

ASAHI (CODEX)

  1. Freakangel – Not A Love Song (STUDIO-X Hard Dance Remix) [Alfa Matrix]
  2. KSHMR & Marnik – Bazaar [Spinnin’ Records]
  3. Don Diablo & Khrebto – Got The Love [Spinnin’ Records]

PlasmaDancer (TYFTH, FINRG, CODEX, NRGetic Romancer)

  1. Mellow Sonic – Psychokinesis [Cosmicopia Records]
  2. Qygen & Novaturtle – Ecumenopolis (Spacechase Version) [Stellar Circle]
  3. Alchemiist – Triple X Rated [FINRG]

Hyphen’s quick off the mark this year with a new showcase set, especially noteworthy for 2017 edits of three (!) tracks. My favourites are the Yuki Kajiura bootlegs, but all six tracks here show off a nice variety of styles, confirming (as if we didn’t know) that Hyphen is definitely leading the way for Japanese freeform at the moment. Transition fans will also enjoy the track connections, showing off some smooth approaches to key changes that make the whole set a quality listen.

Time for the traditional ‘look back at a CODEX from months ago’ post – as the only Japanese freeform event of 2016, CODEX7 definitely deserves a proper recap. With guest cancellations and a last-minute change of lineup there was potential for calamity, but Raqhow and the rest of the crew managed to put on one of the best events of recent years. There was also the small matter of In Praise of Shadows’ release, and it was on sale at the event alongside the CODEX EP, Alias A.K.A.’s Freeform Remixes, and the new Tesla Tracks compilation.

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Sorry the year ended without a post, but the Top 3 Tracks are being gathered together as we speak and will be appearing soon, along with a couple of other delayed bits and pieces. For now, let’s start 2017 with my favourite sets of last year.

2016 was a funny one for the scene – surely more releases than we’ve seen since the golden era of FINRG and Electronica Exposed, but not many events at all (other than in the UK) and fewer recorded sets than we’re used to. Hopefully all these releases in 2016 will have given DJs the ammunition they’ll need for the next twelve months.

On to the favourites from 2016, then. Most of the best sets arrived too soon for a lot of this new material, instead showing a familarity with older tracks that lends itself to more ambitious mixing and cohesive set construction. There’s still a long way to go for the scene in general (in comparison with DJs in some other genres – a thought I’ll save for another time), but there were some more really promising steps forward in 2016.

3. Nomic – Lucky Lotus Online Electronic Music Festival 6

Nomic’s set for Lucky Lotus 6 was one of his very best, not only thanks to the combination of very old and very new, but also the subtle approach to blending tracks and carefully switching key throughout the set. Neptune into Rule Breaker is a nice example, and it does wonders for the atmosphere. That aside, it’s another masterclass of melancholy into aggression and an absolute must-listen.

2. Solvynt – Lucky Lotus Online Electronic Music Festival 6

Solvynt was on top form last year with his Lucky Lotus 5 set, so I was obviously looking forward to number 6 as soon as he was confirmed on the lineup. It doesn’t disappoint, featuring some of darkest atmospheres and interesting transitions of the year. I mentioned at the time that the set suffers a slight dip after a very (very) strong start but then quickly picks up again, which is the only reason it wasn’t my number one choice. Listen and learn from Superstition – Purple – Tendrils of Reality though, that there is how the creativity of a DJ can not only link together, but actually add something extra speacial to the hard work of the artists themselves.

1. Shimotsukei – The Techno Shark Guest Mix

There was no stopping Shimotsukei in 2016, with a pretty staggering amount of mixing across all sorts of genres and even some very promising steps into production. Her end of year Le Dos-0n/Hyphen set came very close to defeating the Techno Shark, but in the end it was hard to deny two hours of excellently mixed tracks that match the TYFTH mission statement word-for-word. The first third-or-so of NRG is as good as you’ll hear anywhere, with some superb, ambitious mixing that maintains the atmosphere brilliantly. The length of the set means that things eventually have to start switching up more abruptly, but even among the freeform tracks there are some special transitions that make the whole two hours an exciting listen. Also worth mentioning what an excellent intro to the two genres this is – if you’re ever out proselytising among the non-believers, Shimotsukei’s set would be ideal.

Honourable Mentions

GULD, Hellfury, Midas, Orphic, Shimotsukei, Shimotsukei

What was already the strongest year for releases in a long time just keeps improving, as Futureproof Sounds’ first compilation has just sneaked in before the end of 2016. A UK label with a taste for the darker side, Futureproof has given strong support to the Japanese scene in FS Vol 1, with tracks from Hyphen and Kokomochi.

I’m not sure I’ve heard the Hyphen track yet, but judging from the collection of preview clips Kokomochi’s Iron Sky leads the way in the rest of the lineup. One of those Hyphen/ikaruga/Falchion-esque tracks that goes heavy on the melodies but anchors things with some nastier sounds, it sounds like a track that could fit into a lot of sets.

The rest of volume one features some interesting melodic tracks without heading too far into darker territory (Transcend and Cyrax’s Forever is a nice example), but the release is definitely one to keep an eye on. It’s available now from the Futureproof site with a very limited run of 100 copies.

What’s this, UK Freeform? Yup, Stamina’s newest compilation has just been released, featuring some huge UK names and a very welcome appearance by Substanced. Artificial Reality is everything you’d hope for, hitting that trademark Substanced middle ground of melodic freeform with an aggressive, Finnish edge.

Heading further across the melodic spectrum are tracks from Transcend, Digital Commandos and A.B, while (as I mentioned in A.B’s promo thread the other day) Ales’ Genre This! remix has a really interesting atmosphere that caught my ear right away. There’s of course a vast expanse of uplifting UK sounds for those whose boats float that way, but even the darker crew should be giving this 2 CD (plus WAVs) release a look.

One of my side quests over the past year or so has been to round up enough darker goa for a full set, but I’ve been struggling to find more than a few tunes that really hit the right spot. It turns out that for modern goa it’s a narrow target, as diddle with the basslines and melodies a little too much and things quickly head into psytrance, tech trance, or dark psy territory.

With my set stalled at around the 20min mark I was about ready to give up, but a few months ago I discovered The Mystery of Crystal Worlds, a 2015 compilation from Russian label Global Sect that’s the best goa release I’ve seen for quite some time.

Psy-H Project became one of my favourite goa artists after the release of Dance of Distant Worlds, one heck of an album that ranks up there with E-Mantra’s Arcana for goa with a darker edge, and he’s a constant presence here. The compilation shifts all over the place though, with the music one part of a massively ambitious project – a psychedelic poem (!) gives some alternate rhyming context to the tracklist, while the imagery and presentation of the 3 CD physical version is utterly beautiful.

In truth most of the tracklist is lighter than my WIP set requires, but some excellent material from Artifact303 is a highlight (including a superb downtempo finale in Family of Light), as well as an interesting collab between Nova Fractal, OXI, and E-Mantra. Alienapia and Khetzal’s Endless Glade doesn’t quite live up to expectations, but is another quality effort.

This one comes highly recommended then, but does anyone have other suggestions for modern dark/acidic goa in the Arcana or Dance of Distant Worlds mould?

Everyone’s familiar with Alias A.K.A., if not for his multi-genre productions of the past few years then definitely as Electronica Exposed’s main man, Shanty. I’ve been following Alias’ releases and mixes for a while and really should have mentioned them here, especially the fabulous Prime Suspect album.

Praise be, then, as the latest Freeform Remixes compilation takes on some of those darker tracks along with all sorts of other fun and games for a compilation of very big names. The majority of the artists lean towards UK freeform, but we also have some high quality deeper sounds on show. Nomic’s Regret remix is the big standout for me so far, but Wyrm and Sutr are a perfect fit to take on Nurgle, originally one of those excellent Prime Suspect dark trance tracks. The remix doesn’t quite hit the dark atmosphere of the original (it is named after the god of disease and decay, after all), but the second half of the clip shows a ton of promise – pacy, twisted and heading in a darker direction.

The last of the previews went online recently, but keep an eye on the Alias A.K.A. SoundCloud or Facebook page for more info on the release.

Sharp-eared SoundCloud lurkers might remember that Qygen’s Supersonic Speed received a very smooth drum and bass remixing last year from Mellow Sonic. I listened to it at the time, but foolishly put off checking many of his other productions until now – thanks (as usual) go to Shimotsukei for giving me the necessary kick in the right direction.

It turns out that I’ve seen the light at just the right time, as three months ago Mellow Sonic’s Psychokinesis was released. No doubt about it, this is one of the most important albums of the year – and I know, in 2016 that’s saying a lot.

This isn’t a freeform-only release, mind, but it’s the way the freeform slots into this cyber-psychedelic, atmospheric collection of downtempo ambient, goa and psy that really made me pay attention. Even if it was just giving us a look at another potential-filled direction for freeform it would be a must-listen, but there are some blinding tunes in here that stand with the best of recent months.

Paradoxon is a very solid track with some nice, approachable melodies that benefit massively from the grindy leads and filtering, as well as the dark goa feel. Drum and bass breakdowns aren’t usually my favourites, but Mellow Sonic at least has the advantage of being an established dnb producer and it definitely doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Shifting Reality keeps the quality and tempo high, with a lovely structure and the best screaming leads since Pink Magic, while Blackout does all sorts of genre splicing tricks to excellent effect – I was expecting a fairly standard dnb-influenced semi-breakcore freeform track from the opening, but some goa-style sounds and deep breakdowns take it in really nice directions.

Psychokinesis, though, is where things get serious. A strong, freeform-styled intro leads into some glorious pads, and then the break. Featuring the depth of a drum and bass breakdown along with the earlier freeform elements, it somehow ends up sounding like something very new. Post-drop, the main melody is a winner – deceptively simple, it echoes some of the best emotional efforts of the FINRG classics, but surrounded by this new atmosphere it sends the track further into uncharted territory. This is what ‘deep’ freeform can (and should) sound like.

The intro and outro tracks are both downtempo, with Conspiracy in particular showing some E-Mantra-esque touches that I really enjoyed – as does Slipstream, even if the goa-influenced tracks don’t quite match the darkness and emotion of the rest of the album.

Whether or not Mellow Sonic was inspired by Qygen to take steps into freeform, Psychokinesis shows that in time he could make just as big, and unique, an impact. Let’s hope there’s more to come, but for now Psychokinesis is available on Mellow Sonic’s Bandcamp.