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A Lot of Your Electronic Music Faves Are Making Pop and Rock Records

Second Floor

Forays into pop and other mainstream-ish genres were once largely seen as brazen attempts at crossover success, but in today’s music landscape, that often seems to be the last thing on artists’ minds.

By Shawn Reynaldo


Shawn Reynaldo is a Barcelona-based writer and editor who specializes in electronic music. His First Floor newsletter often zeroes in on developments in the genre’s corresponding industry and culture, but the Second Floor column is designed to spotlight the music itself, examining trends, recommending releases, and keeping tabs on what’s happening both on and off the dancefloor.

“I’m making a pop record.”

For much of my life, hearing an electronic music artist utter anything resembling that phrase was an immediate red flag. That concern didn’t necessarily stop those artists from going ahead with their plans, but their efforts, at least during the 90s and 2000s, were often viewed with a serious dose of side-eyed skepticism. And why not? For every “The Rockafeller Skank,” “You Don’t Know Me,” or “Romeo” that broke into the charts, there were scads of cheesy crossover attempts and failed endeavors into pop songwriting, many of them coming on the heels of the offending artists being signed to major labels. It seems almost quaint now, but there was a time when “selling out,” or even being perceived as doing so, was widely frowned upon within independent music circles. Back then, many electronic music fans had first been attracted the genre specifically because it was a refuge from the mainstream, so seeing artists intentionally abandon the credible confines of house, techno, jungle, IDM and other “serious” genres to try and write singalong radio fodder was frequently interpreted as a betrayal of what the culture was supposedly all about. Before Play made him an international superstar, Moby unexpectedly pivoted into punk and alt-rock with his 1996 album, Animal Rights, and the critical and public reaction was so negative that he reportedly considered quitting music altogether.

That pressure to conform was intense in those days. It still exists to some degree in electronic music circles, but there have always been artists and scenes willing to buck convention—and they’ve only grown in number as the 21st century has worn on. Electroclash, which peaked during the Y2K era, dealt heavily in gaudy pop tropes—one of the genre’s signature tunes was Tiga’s cover of Corey Hart’s 1984 synth-pop smash “Sunglasses at Night.” Then there was dance-punk (or indie dance, if you prefer), and while The Rapture, LCD Soundsystem, and the wider DFA universe weren’t exactly aiming for mainstream success, their work routinely referenced pop and rock songwriting. Bloghouse also had its pop flirtations—Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” chief among them, along with the entire oeuvre of Uffie—and even its more club-focused offerings often had a first-pumping, arena rock sort of energy.

Yet if there was one crew that truly threw open the pop floodgates, it was PC Music, whose arrival during the early 2010s almost immediately sent all sorts of sparkly glamor and campy exuberance streaming into the electronic underground. Riding the production prowess of artists like A.G. Cook and SOPHIE (who, in truth, was more of an affiliate than an official member of the roster), along with the newly poptimist outlook that had been adopted by many tastemaker types and much of the music press, PC Music completely upended the old mainstream/underground divide, validating all those who loved Britney Spears as much as Aphex Twin. This, of course, sent electronic music’s more traditionalist corners (i.e. mostly older dudes who’d come of age during a previous era) into a tizzy from which they still haven’t really recovered. But for everyone else, the rules about what sounds, references and influences were officially “okay”—or, better said, were now okay to admit in public—had been forever changed. The recent success and gushing critical veneration of Charli XCX’s Brat album, which includes extensive production from Cook and fellow PC Music member Easyfun, is nothing if not a testament to the label’s lasting influence.

Despite that, it still manages to surprise people when “underground” artists, especially ones who’ve already found some measure of success, decide to pivot into pop, or rock, or frankly anything significantly different from what they’re known for. At this point, those pivots tend to vary pretty wildly from one artist to the next; while some rush to find their inner diva, others have turned toward weepy emo, pensive indie, or nu-metal angst. But regardless of whether they’re channeling Christina Aguilera, Linkin Park, or something far less palatable, there’s still something intriguing about established musicians voluntarily choosing to change course, particularly when there appears to be significant risk in doing so.

Industry observers like to say that the rise of streaming has catapulted us into a kind of post-genre universe in which everyone listens to everything, and that may be true to a certain degree. It’s certainly made engaging with pop tropes and other commercial sounds a lot less taboo, for artists and listeners alike. But it’s also true that in a time when consumers now have access to virtually infinite listening options, those who aren’t total stans (i.e. most people) aren’t necessarily going to have the patience to follow musicians down whatever rabbit hole they choose to explore.

That risk, however, hasn’t stopped artists from taking those creative leaps, even as declining record sales, paltry streaming revenue, rising touring costs, and increasingly fickle audiences have made their day-to-day existence feel incredibly precarious. Cynics will often assume that any electronic artist trying their hand at a new, even vaguely poppy sound is doing so out of a craven desire to achieve some sort of mainstream success. And yes, that does still happen sometimes, but the truth is that many of the stylistic diversions we’ve seen electronic artists taking in recent years are still miles away from the playlist fodder that most “normal” people are listening to. Moreover, even when they’re not, the independent artists genuinely attempting to bring pop music to life, particularly in the live arena, are facing a challenge that is not just extremely difficult, but wildly expensive.

Part of the reason why electronic music has experienced such a massive explosion during the past 10 to 15 years is because club and festival promoters know that putting DJs and solo live acts on stage is usually far cheaper than even rudimentary band set-ups, let alone the massive production costs that come with even medium-level pop acts. (Admittedly, there are some EDM shows that employ massive—and massively expensive—stage rigs as well, but most electronic acts don’t fall into that category.) This lesson is something that artists like Avalon Emerson and claire rousay have learned first hand during the past two years. The former’s lockdown-era forays into dream pop eventually led to the creation of a full-blown band and album, both called Avalon Emerson & the Charm. Bringing that vision to life has undoubtedly required a massive outlay of cash. The New York-based artist, who previously spent years jetting solo around the world as a DJ, was suddenly required to shuttle three people—and a whole lot of equipment—to one city after another. (Full disclosure: Emerson is a friend, we work together on the Buy Music Club platform, and I was hired to help compose the promotional text for her aforementioned full-length.) rousay, who traded in her ambient sound art for vocodered emo melancholy on this year’s sentiment LP, is still mostly touring alone. But on top of lining up guest musicians to accompany her at each gig, she’s also been doing so while hauling around an elaborate stage set-up that’s designed to recreate the disheveled bedroom from her latest album’s cover photo.

Mount Kimbie’s Dominic Maker and Kai Campos have been touring with additional musicians for nearly a decade. In 2023, however, they officially made the group into a quartet, a transition that accompanied their turn toward the shoegazey, guitar-driven indie rock that filled this year’s The Sunset Violent album. The record has been met with largely positive reviews, but will the post-dubstep massive buy into the band’s newfound embrace of guitars? That’s not yet clear, and it’s perhaps an even trickier proposition when it comes to Persher, the hardcore- and metal-inspired side project of UK producers Blawan and Pariah. The two also make techno together as Karenn and jointly run the Voam label, one of the genre’s most consistently inventive outposts. That makes Persher—a project rooted in the heavy music they avidly consumed as teenagers—a real outlier, even when the aggro energy of Blawan’s 2012 cult classic, “Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage?,” is factored into the equation. Even so, the duo seem intent on seeing things through; after debuting in 2022 with Man with the Magic Soap, they dropped the project’s debut album, Sleep Well, back in February.

Patrick Holland hasn’t gone anywhere near metal, but the Montreal house producer has grabbed the guitar, and took a significant detour into breezy indie pop on 2022’s You’re the Boss album. He’s since drifted back towards the dancefloor, but listening to the hot licks on last year’s gleefully pumping “Take It,” a song he said began as a “power pop rock demo,” it seems clear that he won’t be ditching the guitar anytime soon. The instrument also played a major role on Suzanne Kraft’s most recent LP, About You. Following a lengthy stint in The Netherlands, he returned home to his native Los Angeles and created a hazy indie rock record, something that was a major departure from the bubbly house cuts and ambient serenity he’d been making for nearly a decade prior.

Artists won’t always cop to it, but nostalgia can be a factor in these kinds of switch-ups. A World of Service, the 2021 full-length from Spanish artist JASSS, was described in a Crack magazine profile as “a de facto diary to her teenage self.” It was the first time she’d ever sung on a record, and its nods to 90s alt-rock and Auto-Tuned R&B were rather different from the corroded beat constructions, industrial stomp, and rave-ready techno she’d released previously. On a more irreverent note, last year’s Second Floor column on the resurgence of trip-hop mentioned that Shinetiac—a collaboration between Shiner, Pontiac Streator, and Ben Bondy—had dropped a creepy rework of the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” on West Mineral Ltd., and that was after naemi had teamed up with perila in 2022 on a cover of Puddle of Mudd’s “Blurry.” In both cases, it’s a safe bet that the artists involved were revisiting the sounds of their youth. Bondy has since gone further down the guitar path with Kevin, a collaboration with Mister Water Wet that explored a warped strain of heart-on-sleeve indie on the project’s 2024 debut album, Laundry.


That sort of vulnerability also colored 2023’s Not Ready for Love, a vocal-led effort from Bristol-based artist Bruce. Coming on the heels of releases for vaunted outposts like Hessle Audio, Timedance, Hemlock, and Livity Sound, the LP’s lush sonics and dramatic, R&B-flavored vocals were perhaps a tough sell for the bass music crowd. But Bruce’s commitment to his vision clearly trumped any impulse he might have had to maintain an easily digestible artistic arc.

That seems to be the case for many of these seemingly unexpected left turns. With her busy DJ schedule, Juliana Huxtable certainly had no practical need to start a rock band, but she’s leveled up the fabulously ostentatious Tongue in the Mind project anyways. The group recently dropped a self-titled album that the PAN label billed as “a hallucinogenic composite of molten thrash and syrupy, disintegrated electronics.” Even weirder is Holy Tongue, UK bass producer Al Wootton’s freaky psychedelic dub outfit with Valentina Magaletti and Zongamin. The trio’s records, including last year’s Deliverance and Spiritual Warfare LP, aren’t designed for mass appeal. Sometimes artists, including ones that already appear to have a good thing going, just want to try things, irrespective of whether or not it makes sense for their career. And who could blame them? In an environment where even those acts who “play it safe” often feel incredibly insecure about their future prospects, it’s no wonder that a sort of anything-goes free-for-all has begun to take root.

Here’s the thing about a free-for-all though: For every unexpected gem that’s made by an artist simply following their muse, there will be a whole lot of half-baked experiments—the overtly pop ones do tend to be especially bad—and even more efforts that are just plain forgettable. But considering that even artists who “stay in their lane” still often misfire, both creatively and commercially, there’s something refreshing about an electronic music ecosystem in which musicians feel free to change it up. Pushing things forward requires taking chances, and if most records are destined to miss the mark, it’s probably best for the culture if they miss it in as many different ways as possible.

A complete accounting of all the electronic artists who’ve tried their hand at a different genres during the past few years is, of course, impossible to include within the span of a single column. Many of the more notable ones have already been mentioned, and some of those are admittedly better than others. But in the interest of ending on a positive note, I’ve compiled four more releases below, all of them recent-ish examples of where an artist’s venture into new musical territories has led to some very rewarding results.

Moin - Moot!

[AD 93]

As Raime, UK artists Joe Andrews and Tom Halstead spent the 2010s conjuring up cinematic power sonics, mutant grime, deconstructed dancehall, and a variety of other murky hybrids. While that project’s 2016 album, Tooth, strongly hinted at the duo’s passion for 90s-era post-hardcore, it was 2021’s Moot! on which the genre became more than a mere reference point. Released under the name Moin—a moniker the two had been using sporadically since 2013—the album sounds more like Fugazi and Slint than the UK hardcore continuum, the energy of its jagged guitars and thrumming basslines buoyed by the lively drumming of Valentina Magaletti, who’s now an official member of the group. Simply put, Moot! Rips, and its 2022 follow-up, the somewhat moodier Paste, is also excellent.

Bliss Signal - Bliss Signal

[True Panther/Profound Lore]

Released in 2018, this album slightly precedes the current wave of electronic artists taking genre detours, but its contents are just as potent. Bliss Signal was a collaboration between bass-loving polymath Mumdance and Tri Angle alumnus WIFE, and their debut full-length dove headlong into an epic strain of techno-infused metal grandeur. The involvement of WIFE, a turn-it-up-to-11 guitarist who’d previously fronted black metal outfit Altar of Plagues, perhaps laid the groundwork for Bliss Signal’s direction. Still, it was surprising to hear this sort of momentous squall coming from a project involving Mumdance, who had come out of the grime scene and was seemingly tethered to the DJ booth.

The Soft Pink Truth - Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase?

[Thrill Jockey]

In fairness, Drew Daniel has made a whole career out of unexpected left turns. As one half of Matmos, he and partner M.C. Schmidt have spent decades making playfully experimental sounds while sampling everything from washing machines to the cuts and scrapes of plastic surgery. With solo project The Soft Pink Truth, he charted a similarly mischievous course, dropping multiple albums stuffed with his own queered electronic covers of classic hardcore and black metal songs. Given his reputation as a prankster, the soft textures and earnest, life-affirming sounds of 2020’s Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? were a total shock. The record’s relatively tranquil, not-quite-pop aesthetic is more akin to a house of worship than a sweaty nightclub.

Night Cycle - Demo ’24

[Eternity Acres]

The first official release from a new band featuring Canadian producers Cooper Saver and Pop District, this fuzzy delight surfaced just last week. Those two had previously spent their whole careers firmly dedicated to the dancefloor, and had even teamed up together on the club-focused Inner Flight project, but Night Cycle takes a crunchy left turn into ’90s-era alt-rock. Hooky, yet still disaffected enough to come across as apathetic (in a cool way, of course), their shoegaze-adjacent songs would have left major-label A&Rs drooling in 1993. More than 20 years later, they make for a pretty big surprise, albeit one that goes down smooth, thanks in no small part to the band’s psychedelic guitar wanderings and the dreamily arresting vocals of singer Liv Perry. 

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