You don't need to be a Kraftwerk fan to know that Germans are as famous for their precision-engineered electronic music as they are for their automobiles. (Although judging from the Saturday Night Live sketch "Sprockets," most people take German cars more seriously.) Dance music—other than rock and hip-hop—may have fallen out of favor in the United States and the U.K. recently, but German artists have stayed the course, turning out some of the most electrifying updates of house, techno, and disco in years.
Even dance-music zealots must occasionally admit that electronica is littered with cumbersome, misleading, and just plain dumb names for subgenres of subgenres of subgenres. This year's hottest property amongst critics and clubbers alike, "electro-house," surely takes the cake for a name without a kingdom. Only a Discogs-addicted, top-10-list-making, P2P obsessive could catalogue the reasons that electro-house differs from its near peers. But the real reason that Berlin's youngish Get Physical label has been so successful in propagating its brand of percussive, disco-inspired dance tracks is that they somehow sound like "dance music" was always supposed to. In contrast with more uptight crate-diggers, the label's cofounder, DJ T.—aka Thomas Koch, the publisher of the German dance-music magazine Groove—makes no apologies for using a well-worn sample from Parliament's "Big Footin' "* as his principal vocal hook. Even what he arranges around it—tub-thumping bass, garish synthesizer washes, and cocaine-crisp handclaps—is more homage than innovation. Yet, the way he lets each element stand out, cushioned by a pillow of empty space, makes his funk-driven tracks some of the headiest dance-floor functionalism around.
As a DJ, Ellen Allien might just be the reigning queen of techno. Her marathon sessions—consisting of a high-octane mixture of classic acid house, industrial techno, and hardscrabble electro—display a rare and irreproducible empathy with the dance floor. (You can stream a recent DJ mix from her here.) She's no less versatile as a businesswoman, having founded the popular experimental-techno label Bpitch Control and her own line of clothing. Her third solo album, which borrows its name from her sartorial enterprise, leans heavily upon the squelch and squeal of vintage synthesizers and the pixel-pocked signature of digitally mangled percussion. It's a conflicted album: The stripped-down drum machine patterns compete with the pop choruses, pulling the music toward techno's innermost circle of devotees and the more open world of mainstream listeners. But somehow the two impulses find a way to make nice as they emerge, breathing hard, into the light.
Cologne's Superpitcher is techno's classiest dandy, knotting scarves around his neck and crafting lovesick songs infused with the high drama of a Turner painting. Indie rockers who discovered him via his remixes for M83 and the Postal Service's Dntel can further their sentimental education with his first official mix CD, which begins with the minor-key bell tones of Lawrence's "Spark" and slouches through an hourlong tour of techno's gaslit backstreets, where the beat falls away beneath gloomy chords and choruses. (If DJ mixes are often—and hyperbolically—described as journeys, then Superpitcher is electronic music's flâneur, delighting in details like understated bass lines and all-but-inaudible waves of echo.) Listening to "Happiness," it's not hard to understand why Superpitcher is often tagged with the term "micro-goth:" the song is surely joy's most downcast ode ever.
The Areal label was but one among dozens of small, independent imprints that have made minimal techno Cologne's most important cottage industry over the last decade, and then came Ada. The twentysomething musician dropped out of her rock band, borrowed a sampler and a drum machine, and delivered her first single to Areal founder Michael Schwanen, an old friend, within a matter of weeks. Last fall, her debut album landed in the pages of the New York Times (no doubt thanks to her electro-pop cover of "Maps" by the New York rock band Yeah Yeah Yeahs), and this summer finds her twisting knobs in front of thousands of people at festivals like Barcelona's Sónar. Her music is the last candidate you'd expect for that kind of attention, if only because it's so understated. Her drums subtly chug and her keyboards tease out notes that never quite take shape. Her breathy voice hints at a hidden pop starlet, but her melancholy melodies dissolve as quickly as they take shape, seemingly intent upon evading the spotlight.
Frankfurt's Rajko Müller had an unexpected hit in 2000 with "Beau Mot Plage," a summery, Brazilian-inspired anthem that was licensed for dozens of compilations and sounded almost nothing like the sour, alienated electronica that comprised the remainder of his debut album, Rest. Five years later, Müller has returned from silence with a baffling and brilliant record that may well stand as one of the year's best in any genre. Techno's four-to-the-floor pulse still underpins his music, but the spindly keyboard figures of Rest have ballooned into gigantic Michelin Men, jolly and rotund. Taut snares and grooving guitar and keyboard riffs pay tribute to disco's golden age, but the record refuses to submit to either retro urges or hackneyed techno futurism. "Schrapnell" is a double feature of surf kitsch and spaghetti western; "Do Re Mi" features chords so spooky that Vincent Price might be sitting in; and the 18-minute expanse of "Enrico," "Mädchen mit Hase," and "My Hi-Matic" brims with so many ideas that it might as well be its own mini-album. Anyone who finds electronic music predictable would do well to study the switchbacking movements of Wearemonster, in which chord progressions morph at will and melody lines stretch like bubblegum, without ever going pop.