The 20 Best DJ Mixes of 2019 – Pitchfork

A truly exceptional DJ mix isn’t just about moving a crowd, though it can certainly do that. As the past 10 years of streaming music have taught us, a great set can be just as powerful when heard through headphones at home as it is the middle of a crowded dancefloor. And with these new listening options, more experimental mixes—ambient, eclectic, heady, disorienting—have arisen alongside more habitual club fare. More than ever, the DJ mix is a medium for self-expression—for formulating ideas, making arguments, connecting dots, and capturing all kinds of emotion, from the most enduring to the most fleeting.

This year’s best mixes did all these things and more, whether moving our feet or blowing our minds. Here are 20 of them, each one well worth your time.


Aïsha Devi – RA.699 (October 2019)

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to use Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi as the intro to your mix, but Aïsha Devi pulls it off. It helps that both her productions and her mixing aim for transcendence. “Club music is changing,” she tells Resident Advisor. “When people are partying, they are looking for that enlightening factor.” To achieve it, Devi utilizes the same awe-inspiring sense of scale that dictates cathedrals’ towering proportions: Her synth leads soar overhead, and every surface is polished to a brilliant gleam. Her tastes are the opposite of dogmatic: Trance stabs lean on dembow rhythms, and gothic ambient envelops East African club beats. Her cadences zigzag across contrasting moods and textures yet always feel interconnected. As the set builds in intensity, a kind of violence takes hold, but the destruction is purely cathartic—a burning away of useless layers to reveal a vivid inner core.


Avalon Emerson – Live at MUTEK Mexico (January 2019)

Over the past few years, the Berlin-based American artist Avalon Emerson has emerged as one of the best club DJs out there. Her muscular, propulsive playing could suit any mainstage or basement, and it’s infused with enough moments of straight-up fun—a breaks ‘n’ acid remix of Fast Eddie’s 1988 hip-house anthem “Yo Yo Get Funky,” a sneaky segue into Josh Wink’s classic “A Higher State of Consciousness”—to remind revelers to go wild because dammit, this is a party. Like her Printworks set from a couple years ago, this one, captured at MUTEK Mexico, includes the faintest background layer of crowd noise, and those raucous cheers make the recording truly come alive. It’s an exhilarating two-hour tour of EBM, acid, breakbeats, and sneaky samples that range from Middle Eastern flutes to Nina Simone. Best of all, a partial tracklist she created on Buy Music Club (a website she cofounded to share playlists on Bandcamp) provides handy links for everything that’s available on the independent download platform.


Beta Librae – Oscillate Recording No 09 (September 2019)

I don’t include many mixes longer than two hours in this column, for simple reasons: Life is short, and there’s a ton of music out there to get through. Plus, for home-listening purposes, not a lot of DJs can really craft a convincing narrative over such a considerable span. But this three-hour session from Brooklyn’s Beta Librae is an exception. Though recorded during the afternoon in the outdoor garden of Berlin’s ://about blank club, it feels more like a basement set, the eerie sonics reminiscent of clammy pipes and cascading plaster. The mood turns spiky and odd about 30 minutes in, and from there, her shapeshifting techno just gets darker and trippier, the tempo climbing gradually to a 140 BPM climax. Like the best, most ambitious club sets, this one really is a journey.


CCL – Unsound Podcast 56 (September 2019)

Seattle’s CCL plays fast and loose with tempo in a podcast that was published ahead of their appearance at Krakow’s Unsound festival. Kicking off way down in the 90 BPM doldrums, they explore a range of unusual grooves, as slow-motion breakbeats collide with digital dancehall and hard-charging drum’n’bass flips seamlessly into ’80s electro-funk with a Compass Point feel. By alternating between slow, steady cadences and double-time permutations, CCL teases the illusion of flitting back and forth between two parallel dimensions—a heady sensation accented by the otherworldly qualities of these percussive jams. Their Crack Mix from back in May was just as slippery and nearly as good.


DEBONAIR – RA.677 (May 2019)

“I connect to sound more when it’s sneaky and creeps up on you,” the London DJ DEBONAIR (aka Debi Ghose) has said, and her Resident Advisor podcast is nothing if not surreptitious. From its first minutes, it’s clear that strange forces are afoot: A man’s ASMR-inducing whisper initiates a guided meditation; an eerie, sing-song loop promises “another day.” DEBONAIR snakes her way through slowed-down rave edits and nimble ambient dub, and she doesn’t drop a four-to-the-floor pulse until 30 minutes in; even then, the mix remains streaked with industrial accents. Just when you’d expect it to peak, it slows down not once but twice, then gathers steam for a rattling noise-techno climax before collapsing in a heap. Shriekback’s 1982 funk-punk classic “All Lined Up” makes for a canny ending, its blend of dance and doom perfectly summing up the set.


Dee Diggs – Fact Mix 710 (June 2019)

Brooklyn DJ Dee Diggs’ mix is a celebration not just of house music’s black and queer roots but, just as importantly, its black, queer, and feminist present. Temporally and geographically, she covers lots of ground, taking in pioneers like Colonel Abrams and DJ Deeon, global star Peggy Gou, and rising talents like Portugal’s Violet and Philadelphia’s SCRAAATCH. The set is just as diverse stylistically, taking in acid, deep house, piano house, breakbeats, diva refrains, and more. For all that range, it moves with real purpose, cutting a clear arc that feels powered, even in its darkest moments, by pure joy.


Exael – HNYPOT 349: Exael’s Seraphim Vape Mix (December 2019)

In 2019, Exael emerged as one of the year’s most promising—and versatile—talents. The American-born, Berlin-based producer had a hand in Ghostride the Drift, alongside Huerco S. and uon; they also put out a killer EP of experimental techno on Berlin’s xpq? label and, under their Naemi alias, a lovely ambient two-tracker. Their activities behind the mixer were just as exciting. Back in April, I flagged Naemi’s dreamy SANPO 144 mix, which weaved between jazzy downtempo, border-hopping dub, private-press 1970s psych, and chillout-room staples like Spacetime Continuum.

In December, they returned with an even more ambitious offering. Recorded for Honey Soundsystem’s HNYPOT series, Exael’s “Seraphim Vape Mix” is a gracefully bewildering spin through flickering Russian bass music, vintage IDM, 1990s drum’n’bass, mangled hip-hop breaks, and more. The beats are constantly shifting; styles flip like the twists of a möbius strip, but the mood is immersive and enveloping. Late in the mix, over weightless grime from the Scottish producer Perko, Exael drops an eerie spoken-word recording by the Berlin poet Zoe Darsee. In a slow, grainy voice, she intones, “Music is an ashtray/Everyone respects it/Everyone knows/It is the receptacle of the soul.” It’s the perfect complement for Exael’s musical sensibility: an otherworldly dream state, all stable points of reference dancing teasingly out of reach.


Kampire – FACT 718 (July 2019)

Kampire Bahana is a core member of Kampala, Uganda’s Nyege Nyege crew, the festival and record label that has drawn international attention to the East African electronic underground. She got her start as a party promoter and an activist who organizes safe parties for women and LGBTQ+ people, but over the past few years, she has emerged as a major talent in her own right. Nyege Nyege fans will recognize a few things here: Rising Kenyan star Slikback turns up with the percussive, minimalist vocal track “Cardi Black,” and Tanzania’s singeli outfit Sisso closes out the set at a typically unhinged 200-plus BPM. Along the way, she switchbacks through concussive bass music, gqom, kuduro, soukous, Angolan rap, and even something that sounds a lot like UK funky. It’s a stellar sampling of one of the world’s most dynamic scenes right now.


Laurel Halo – DJ-Kicks (March 2019)

Laurel Halo is widely celebrated as an experimental musician, thanks to productions and performances that blur the lines between ambient, improv, techno, and even pop. But she doesn’t get nearly enough credit as an electronic producer, despite her knack for floor-fillers that spark like jumper cables. DJ-Kicks, Halo’s first commercial mix album, confirms her reputation as an enviably adventurous club DJ. Volleying between dank electro, Detroit techno, bare-knuckled bass music, and murky moments of instability, it’s a nonstop negotiation between peak-time thrills and the thorniest rhythmic thickets.


Leif – Freerotation 2019 (July 2019)

Leif is a resident DJ at Wales’ Freerotation festival, an intimate, members-only affair held on a rural country estate made famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of Baskervilles. He’s recently become known for ambient sets (and a stellar ambient mini-album), but in this session from this year’s festival, he moves back to the dancefloor. It’s hardly a peak-time set, though; instead, he reaches for the kinds of drifting atmospheres that might color his beatless sets and infuses them with the broken beats and syncopated rhythms of left-field bass music. Drawing on artists like Aleksi Perälä, Efdemin, Aphex Twin, Dolo Percussion, and Burnt Friedman, it’s slippery but invigorating, fueled by an anything-goes spirit and an idyllic, lakeside-raving vibe.


MCZO & Duke – The No Visa Mix (May 2019)

Walls, both physical and metaphorical, are going up around the world. Back in May, Tanzania’s MCZO and Duke, Nyege Nyege Tapes signees and representatives of Dar Es Salaam’s breakneck singeli sound, were scheduled to perform at New York’s Red Bull Music Festival. But despite having paid artist-visa fees in excess of their combined families’ annual incomes, they were refused the right to enter the country. Never mind “the fact that we fill stadiums in Dar Es Salaam and are loved by millions in our country,” wrote the two musicians; American immigration authorities “still assumed we were going to run away and hide illegally in America.” In the spirit of entertainers everywhere, they determined that the show must go on; they just moved it to the internet, delivering this blistering, 48-minute blast of 235-BPM beats and auctioneer-speed chat. The music would be thrilling under any circumstances; sounding like a fast-forwarding cassette player about to explode, singeli is one of the most exciting styles on the planet right now. But given the circumstances, and the two musicians’ determination and generosity, it doubles as a sad reminder that the more America isolates itself, the more we miss out on.


Nadia Khan – High Rize (October 2019)

Kansas City’s prolific c- mix series is a showcase of some of the best ambient and experimental music out there; among their recent crop of mixes is this perfect set from Charlotte, North Carolina’s Nadia Khan. Over the past couple of years, she’s recorded a handful of moody, mysterious releases for underground labels like Where To Now? and Francis Harris’ Scissor and Thread, and her c- set traverses similarly atmospheric terrain. Her selections are drenched in watery color, and while the set’s hardly devoid of rhythm—dub techno and downtempo grooves keep the energy bubbling along—it favors freeform drift over programmatic motion, and long stretches are gratifyingly beatless. Like the best ambient music, it’s quietly sneaky: It feels like background listening, yet it’s perpetually reaching out and pulling you into its world.


Ploy – Cav Empt Tape (May 2019)

In September 2018, Joy O cooked up a surprisingly slinky mixtape for the Japanese streetwear brand Cav Empt; now Ploy, a fellow fringe bass-music acolyte, does the same—and, like Joy O, he’s generously popped the audio on SoundCloud, for the benefit of all of us who aren’t Tokyo hypebeasts. A sample of Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.” kicks off the mix in unexpected fashion; the first half hour is a slow, almost imperceptibly accelerating tour of dubbed-out machine snares and menacing, percussive bass music. Roughly halfway through, the synthetic flutes of Ellll’s “Pepsi” add a rare moment of relative clarity; then Ploy dives back into the murk with a handful of crisp, cutting electro tunes—Amish Boy’s “Laika Test Project,” Konrad Wehrmeister’s “Kitchen Blade,” and Phoenicia’s 1999 classic “Odd Job (Soul Oddity Rhythm Box Version)”—that keep the atmosphere from getting too oppressive.


Powder – RA.700 (October 2019)

This one’s just a snapshot—a two-hour stretch excerpted from a nine-hour all-nighter—but in those two hours, the Tokyo DJ does a remarkable job of showing what makes her style unique. It’s a party set, as the occasional eruptions of crowd noise make clear, but Powder never opts for obvious choices; instead of big, recognizable riffs that grab dancers by the shoulders, she prefers dense drum grooves and swirled effects that have the drag of an undertow, pulling dancers deeper in. The mixing is all the tighter given how her selections can be rather odd—lumpy and misshapen, with bulbous low end and soggy midrange. Their introspective tinge means that the occasional recognizable hit—a spacious, almost ambient UK garage refix of Lumidee’s “Never Leave You (Uh Oh)” or a lengthy trip into Steve Barnes’ “Cosmic Sandwich,” a chestnut from minimal techno’s golden era—only lands that much harder.


Shyboi – FADER Mix (August 2019)

DHS’s “House of God” is one of those chestnuts so hoary you might think you never needed to hear again. Yet when the 1990 track’s spoken refrain murmurs its way into Shyboi’s Fader Mix, some 32 minutes in, it sounds somehow almost revelatory. The Jamaican-born New York DJ has a way of doing that—taking familiar sounds and making them sound new, and vice versa. Part of it comes down to her knack for juxtaposition, as this set illustrates as it moves through vintage bleep, gqom, industrial techno, breakbeats, and East Coast club without so much as pausing for breath; some of it is just style, flow, panache. If there’s one value that came to define underground dance music in 2019, it’s hybridity, and few sets pulled it off with more devilish ease than this one.


Sold – RA.689 (August 2019)

“I think there’s an idea that ambient is typically peaceful and I really enjoy dismantling that,” says Chicago’s Sold (aka Glenna Fitch). You can tell: Their Resident Advisor set, recorded in the wake of what they describe as an extended stretch of pretty heavy shit, takes its inspiration not from tranquility but from disturbance—from the productive energies that come from stirring up already murky waters. Rumbling drones are punctuated by trudging drumbeats; chopped-up voices splash like waves against the rocks; the ethereal footwork of Jana Rush swirls together with the rock-tumbler sampledelia of Gayphex Twin. Long passages prove to be a real headfuck, but it’s never dark just for the sake of being dark; while often abstracted, it’s hardly formless. By the time you arrive at the swarming woodwinds of the climax, there’s hard-won catharsis.


UMFANG – Bossa x UMFANG 001 (August 2019)

If you’ve been looking for a techno mix, this is the one. UMFANG was the first DJ ever to play Bossa Nova Civic Club, a New York underground staple, back in 2012, so it’s only fitting that she kick off their new series. Mixed fast and tight, this is an exhilarating hour-long set to be enjoyed in the middle of a lit-up dancefloor, as sweat-slicked limbs are caked in plaster dust falling from the ceiling. Interstitial voices semi-ironically mimic commercial radio ads (“Your club’s favorite club!”), hyping on a set that’s already careening thrillingly into the red. UMFANG’s selections are resolutely no-frills, all punishing snares and flayed ride cymbals, and she pushes relentlessly all the way to the didgeridoo-fueled finale. Start to finish, it’s a scorched-earth campaign.


Via App – Crack Mix 307 (September 2019)

This set from New York’s Via App comes cloaked in an unmistakable sense of menace, and no matter how many times I listen, that undercurrent of danger never quite abates. Shifting between passages of glowering noise and club music, it’s a real headfuck from start to finish. Just when you think you’re in for an extended session of power electronics, rolling house and grime from Bergsonist and Scratcha DVA & Nan Kolé cut a path to the dancefloor; just as you get used to those rhythms, the pendulum swings again. Whatever the hell is happening around the one-hour mark—as an edit of Missy Elliott’s “Throw It Back” gives way to drum’n’bass and then pummeling hard techno—makes for one of the most intense segues I’ve heard in a mix this year.


Wordcolour – Blowing Up the Workshop 101 (January 2019)

Wordcolour (aka the London composer Nicolas Worrall) has come up with a mix concept so simple, it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been done before. His set for Blowing Up the Workshop, probably the most consistently interesting mix series out there, interweaves pensive ambient music with provocative bits of movie dialogue in a way that’s unusually transporting. Full of pliable synths, murmurs, and even snippets from a few bona fide ASMR recordings, it’s as wispy as “something like the feeling of the idea of silk scarves in the air,” a fitting metaphor for the mix’s diaphanous aesthetic. (That line comes from the experimental composer Robert Ashley’s unorthodox opera Private Parts, which touches down midway through the set.) But what scans initially as background music isn’t so unassuming; even the quietest voices have a way of commanding your attention. The mix’s most potent passage leads, believe it or not, from Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” and the Muppets’ “Rainbow Connection” into a nine-year-old viral video of a hiker’s ecstatic encounter with a double rainbow high in the Sierra Nevada. What might look kitschy on paper is strangely affecting in Wordcolour’s world, and a minute or two later, when a character from Stand By Me whimpers, “Why did you have to die?” it’s enough to stop you in your tracks. It’s widescreen drama delivered in a whisper.

You might like

About the Author: kevinbishop

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *