Top 100 albums of the ’90s

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Ambient, Ambient Techno, Breakbeat, Dance Rock, Downtempo, Drum 'n' Bass, House, Techno | Tags: | No Comments »

Album Quilt - Top 100 Electronica Albums of the '90s - 2

The ’90s were the creative highpoint of a music revolution: the convergence of computers, electronics and human ingenuity. The fusion of machine rhythms and electric melodies freed musicians to coalesce around a predominantly energetic instrumental form. The new tools also liberated sound itself, soundwaves carving shapes and effects never before imagined.

On a stealth level, electronica was essentially X-ray music for a pre-9/11 teenage wasteland. It evaporated lyrical me-isms and mass materialism. It projected listeners into holographic Promised Lands interconnected by spines of time. Around the skeletal interplay human beings transmitted their deepest hopes and dreams. It was at once intellectual and carnal, escapist and clairvoyant.

Below is a list of my top picks from that splendid decade with tributes to each album. My basic criteria was that each pick reasonably emphasize electronica’s instrumental dynamics, display a full range of invention, express a deep artistic voice, and weather the test of time. A more detailed explanation of my selection process follows after the list. Chime in with your thoughts and criticisms. The next 100 best albums of the ’90s, as well as lists on the ’00s and ’80s are also in the works.

Click on album titles to read descriptions and histories:

1. Underworld - Dubnobasswithmyheadman – 1994
2. Orbital - Orbital 2 (‘Brown Album’) – 1993
3. Future Sound of London - Lifeforms – 1994
4. Leftfield - Rhythm and Stealth – 1999
5. Fila Brazillia - Luck Be A Weirdo Tonight – 1997
6. Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works 85-92 – 1993
7. Boards of Canada - Music Has the Right to Children – 1998
8. The Black Dog - Temple of Transparent Balls – 1993
9. Daft Punk - Homework – 1997
10. Ismistik - Remain – 1994
11. Speedy J - G Spot – 1995
12. Leftfield - Leftism – 1995
13. The KLF - Chill Out – 1990
14. The Chemical Brothers - Exit Planet Dust – 1995
15. Young American Primitive - Young American Primitive – 1993
16. Rockers Hi-Fi - Rockers to Rockers – 1995
17. Underworld - Second Toughest in the Infants – 1996
18. Move D - Kunststoff – 1995
19. LFO - Advance – 1996
20. Eat Static - Implant – 1994
21. Ken Ishii - Innerelements – 1994
22. Global Communication - 76:14 – 1994
23. Amorphous Androgynous - Tales of Ephidrina – 1993
24. The Advent - New Beginning – 1997
25. Children of the Bong - Sirius Sounds – 1995
26. A Guy Called Gerald - Black Secret Technology – 1995
27. Radioactive Lamb - The Memoirs of Reverend Cowhead and Sheriff Lamb Boy – 1996
28. Ronnie & Clyde - In Glorious Black and Blue – 1997
29. La Synthesis - Matrix Surfer – 1997
30. Spooky - Gargantuan – 1993
31. Coco Steel & Lovebomb - New World – 1997
32. Photek - Modus Operandi – 1997
33. The Chemical Brothers - Live at the Social – 1996
34. Orbital - Snivilisation – 1994
35. Fila Brazillia - Old Codes New Chaos – 1994
36. Nu-Era - Beyond Gravity – 1994
37. Underground Resistance - Interstellar Fugitives -1998
38. Plastikman - Musik – 1994
39. Fila Brazillia - Power Clown – 1998
40. Orbital - In Sides – 1997
41. Higher Intelligence Agency - Freefloater – 1995
42. Russ Gabriel - Voltage Control – 1995
43. The Orb - Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld – 1991
44. Orlando Voorn - Nightvision – 1996
45. The Chemical Brothers - Dig Your Own Hole – 1997
46. Kirk Degiorgio - Check One – 1998
47. DJ Dan - Loose Caboose – 1996
48. Kruder & Dorfmeister - K&D Sessions – 1999
49. Various Artists - Excursions in Ambience – 1993
50. Spring Heel Jack - 68 Million Shades – 1997
51. Love Inc. - Life’s a Gas – 1996
52. Lionrock - An Instinct for Detection – 1997
53. Torch Song - Toward the Unknown Region – 1995
54. Swayzak - Snowboarding in Argentina – 1998
55. The Black Dog - Bytes – 1993
56. Squarepusher - Hard Normal Daddy – 1997
57. Plug - Drum ‘n’ Bass for Papa – 1997
58. Spacetime Continuum - Emit Ecaps – 1996
59. Maurizio - Maurizio – 1997
60. Plaid - Not for Threes – 1997
61. Future Sound of London - Accelerator – 1992
62. 4Hero - Two Pages – 1998
63. Depth Charge - Nine Deadly Venoms – 1994
64. Dave Clarke - Archive One – 1996
65. CJ Bolland - The 4th Sign – 1992
66. Autechre - Tri Repetae – 1996
67. As One - In With Their Arps, and Moogs, and Jazz, and Things – 1997
68. B12 - Electro-Soma – 1993
69. Mouse On Mars - Iaora Tahiti – 1995
70. Woob - 1194 – 1994
71. As One - The Art of Prophecy – 1997
72. Jedi Knights - New School Science – 1996
73. Reload - A Collection of Short Stories – 1993
74. Nightmares On Wax - Carboot Soul – 1999
75. Icons (Justice & Blame) - Emotions With Intellect… – 1997
76. The Irresistible Force - It’s Tomorrow Already – 1998
77. Single Cell Orchestra - Single Cell Orchestra – 1996
78. Model 500 - Deep Space – 1995
79. Ed Rush & Optical - Wormhole – 1998
80. Groove Armada - Northern Star – 1998
81. Future Sound of London - Dead Cities – 1996
82. Baby Mammoth - One…Two…Freak – 1997
83. Sasha - Northern Exposure 2 – 1998
84. Underworld - Dark & Long – 1994
85. Richie Hawtin - Mixmag Live! – 1995
86. Biosphere - Microgravity – 1991
87. Ian O’Brien - Gigantic Days – 1999
88. Pluto - Pluto Rising – 1995
89. Jonny L - Sawtooth – 1997
90. Kosmik Kommando - Freaquenseize – 1993
91. Strange Cargo - Hinterland – 1995
92. DJ John Kelley - Funky Desert Breaks – 1996
93. Various Artists - Flux Trax – 1995
94. Aphrodite - Aphrodite Recordings – 1997
95. Faze Action - Moving Cities – 1999
96. Various Artists - The Deepest Shade of Techno – 1994
97. Nightmares On Wax - Smokers Delight – 1995
98. Coldcut & DJ Food - Stoned…Chilled…Groove – 1996
99. Various Artists - Atlantic Jaxx Recordings – 1997
100. Thomas Fehlmann - FlowingZeroNineEight – 1998

Key Electronica-Influenced Albums of the ’90s:
1. Massive Attack – ‘Blue Lines’
2. Bjork – ‘Debut’
3. Radiohead – ‘Kid A’
4. DJ Shadow – ‘Endtroducing…’
5. Massive Attack – ‘Protection’
6. Madonna – ‘Ray of Light’
7. Portishead – ‘Dummy’
8. Primal Scream – ‘Screamadelica’
9. Stereo MC’s – ‘Connected’
10. Morcheeba – ‘Who Can You Trust?’
11. U2 – ‘Achtung Baby’
12. U2 – ‘Zooropa’
13. Seal – ‘Seal’
14. Deee-Lite – ‘World Clique’
15. Everything But the Girl – ‘Amplified Heart’
16. Big Audio Dynamite II – ‘The Globe’
17. David Gray – ‘White Ladder’
18. Jamiroquai – ‘Return of the Space Cowboy’
19. The Stone Roses – ‘The Stone Roses’
20. The Happy Mondays – ‘Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches’

The thought-process behind the selection of the 100:

Many important and influential albums are missing from the list above by design. For example, followers of the Berlin dub-techno school will complain of the omission of Basic Channel and Pole. Due to the relatively rarefied nature of these artists, I have instead focused on the most accessible and representative of these ‘schools.’ In the above case, I have added Maurizio as the genre stand-in. In the case of auteurs like Jeff Mills and Matthew Herbert, their oeuvres are scattered across 12″ singles and later compilations, and will be considered in later write-ups.

Others might also scream bloody murder at my exclusion of Roni Size and Reprazent’s debut classic New Forms or Massive Attack’s Blue Lines. Ditto when it comes to Bjork. My decision in these cases was to focus on albums that generally eschewed the pop arena and hewed closer to the instrumental electronica paradigm. These albums and many other key releases are considered elsewhere on this site.

Compilations and DJ mixes are sparingly included to help fill in key gaps of the story. DJs played a crucial role in electronic dance culture, quilting together the best underground releases and taking newcomers on unforgettable journeys into sound. Many of electronica’s best compositions also came out as vinyl singles and one-offs. In addition to the DJ mixes, a few compilations were selected to help capture those groundbreaking moments.

In part, this list is meant as an antidote to the many distortions of mainstream music culture that have colored assumptions about popular music for the last 30 years. Yes, Radiohead has been brilliant. Yes, the Beastie Boys and Jay Dilla penned fantastic hip hop gems. But the creative wave of these genres crested in the ’60s and ’80s respectively. The ’90s was arguably techno’s decade, despite the critical aversion and deafness of the press at large.

As the freshest and most creative music form of that decade, one could argue that several of the ‘electronica’ albums above were also many of the best albums of the last 20 years, period. I hope those who got the message in the ’90s would agree. I hope naysayers will at least take some stock. And I wish newcomers the same joy of discovery these albums have given me and so many others over the years.

5. Fila Brazillia – ‘Luck Be A Weirdo Tonight’

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Downtempo | Tags: | No Comments »

Fila Brazillia - Luck Be A Weirdo Tonight

Fila Brazillia * Luck Be A Weirdo Tonight * 1997 * Pork

The music partnership of Steve Cobby and David McSherry was one of the most prolific in the history of electronica. In the span of twelve years the pair knocked out ten albums, ranging confidently through the swampy borderlands of house, ambient, funk, world, dub and jazz. Old Codes / New ChaosMaim That Tune and Power Clown were three of their finest. But the seamless Luck Be A Weirdo Tonight was Fila Brazillia‘s crowning achievement.

Based in Kingston-upon-Hull, a river town in eastern England, the two met through Pork Recordings, one of the world’s top chill-out labels. Cobby and McSherry were skilled musicians, playing drums, guitar, keyboards and bass. They also used electronics and sampling to excellent and ironic effect, drawing on the samba-rock of Jorge Ben or the hard bop of Art Blakey, dicing beats in hip hop fashion or channeling the ambient strums of Pink Floyd.

“It’s all found objects,” Cobby once told Lotus magazine. “If there is meaning, it’s in your head. It’s like Marcel Duchamp. You make the piece. We’re Dadaists. It’s a happy accident.”

But Fila Brazillia’s organic electronica was far from accidental. Their music carefully weaved discarded sounds with bright new ones, dazzling the mind with a Frankenstein funk powered by the electric charge of their own creative brilliance. And Luck Be A Weirdo Tonight was their Dada masterpiece.

Its clever patterns require active attention and multiple listens to break them open. Dense jazz rhythms and gaseous horns evoke a winding river trip — rushing, overflowing, swirling, floating, easing. Hovering over eddies of syncopation, wah-wah riffs trail through the thick air while synthesizers squiggle like bumblebees on a spring mating path. The first third of the album is all rapids and clears. ‘Billy Goat Groupies’ and ‘Apehorn Concerto’ pick their way through thickets of percussion, crashing drums dropping into tranquil pools of bliss. Opener ‘Lieut. Gingivitis Shit’ bumps to deep bass and lily-pad tones before a howling blues guitar scratches an itch deep down in the soul. The second third of the album picks up the pace. ‘Rustic Bellyflop’ struts to an acoustic guitar that picks its strings like the legs of a spider. ‘Van Allens Belt’ bounces to a slapping groove, its swooping synths taking us off the river shore and into the woods.

A trio of masterstrokes marks the album’s climax. ‘Pollo De Palo’ cruises to an introspective bass line, a suite of winds lifting you up through the trees and into a daydream meadow. ‘Heat Death of the Universe’ flutters until a hopeful melody zips high above, drums and plucking guitar coming to life like excited spectators of a distant rocket launch. It ranks as one of the most moving electronica tracks of all time while the millennial fever of ‘Weasel Out the Muck’ is the consummate funkster. Coming on like tank music from the Vietnam War era, ‘Muck’ kicks off with an evocative voice sample about self-fulfilling prophecies. Its kick drum buckles the breeze under a vapor of violins, a frenzy of keys answered by a guitar line that would make Jimi Hendrix proud. And when you think it can’t get any better, a billowy synth spills out of the air like colored smoke, leaving you dazed in the weeds.

Fila’s excursion through forgotten samples and wild inventions concludes with the coda ‘Do the Hale-Bopp,’ its title alluding to the Hale-Bopp comet sighting of 1997. It’s a dubbed-out jam of rubbery bass and twanging guitar, slowly rising up into the ether — a fitting end to an unforgettable trek through the weird and lovely world of Fila Brazillia.

Adding to the fantastical mischief, Luck Be A Weirdo Tonight‘s cover is one of electronica’s best. When combined with the music, its storybook illustrations echo the psychedelic ardor of nature itself. “Is that a bunny named ‘Luck’ hopping through the forest?” you might ask.

Sadly, Cobby and McSherry would call it quits in 2006. But Luck is an enduring reminder of just how intensely their artistic fire burned, each listen yielding new discoveries in the mental wilderness.

Like a rabbit, that curious spirit is never far away, haunting an acid jazz daydream on the outskirts of everyday life. You just have to cross the fence. And chase it.

1. Lieut. Gingivitis Shit
2. Billy Goat Groupies
3. Apehorn Concerto
4. Hells Rarebit
5. Her Majesties Hokey Cokey
6. Rustic Bellyflop
7. Van Allens Belt
8. Pollo De Palo
9. Heat Death of the Universe
10. Weasel Out the Muck
11. Do the Hale-Bopp

7. Boards of Canada – ‘Music Has the Right to Children’

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Ambient, Ambient Techno, Downtempo | Tags: | No Comments »

Boards of Canada - Music Has the Right to Children

Boards of Canada * Music Has the Right to Children * 1998 * Warp Records

Boards of Canada are not from Canada. They’re from Scotland. That was the first curious thing about the chill music of brothers Michael and Marcus Sandison. Far more mysterious though was their heartbreaking sound, an ingenious blend of crunchy, warped beats, moody flecks of funk, and warm analog synths carving sublime snowdrifts of memory and thought.

Adding to the mystique, the Sandisons were reclusive pastoralists. Unlike their electronic brethren, such as Autechre — whose label Skam Records gave them their first real break — they were not urban technologists. They lived in the Scottish countryside in the Pentland Hills, home of their Hexagon Sun studio.

Their music evoked the wildlife documentary films of their youth. The kind once projected in classrooms or broadcast on public TV: Visions of Yellowstone, the Rockies, owls and grizzly bears, tundras and streams. In fact, Boards of Canada derived their name from the National Film Board of Canada, whose nature films and music scores of the ’70s were a major inspiration. But while their music channeled the outdoors, it also evoked the once mystic power of analog technologies, from the radio to the cathode-ray TV set, from the turntable to the tape recorder — the scratchy sound of vinyl records, the electronic music themes of broadcast networks, and old family Polaroids.

Pushing against the digital tide of the ’90s, Boards of Canada crafted the ultimate monument to that analog childhood with the groundbreaking album, Music Has the Right to Children. While it paid homage to old synthesizers, it placed their imaginings within a tangible landscape, a vaguely northern, Arctic frontier. Their name and artwork played to this notion while the music itself sounded like bright little campfires in an audio wilderness.

Short cinematic interludes like ‘Triangles & Rhombuses,’ ‘Kaini Industries’ and ‘Bocuma’ were flashes of perfection, aurora melodies billowing on a dream horizon. Child laughter buoyed chill-out anthem ‘Aquarius’ while ‘Telephasic Workshop’ brooded in a cloud of lightening. ‘Pete Standing Alone’ and ‘An Eagle In Your Mind’ captured the majestic solitude of nature’s hinterlands. And closer ‘Happy Cycling’ spun into sweet delirium like a slow tornado of birds.

But it was ‘ROYGBIV’ that crystallized their aesthetic best. It was a kaleidoscope of wonder, its rainbow melody rising up over a playground of broken beats and shimmering keys, a nostalgic crush of whimsy and melancholy that deepened and sustained its strains of fleeting innocence.

Other than Daft Punk, there may be no other electronica group that has influenced rockers more. Like those savvy Frenchmen, the Sandisons have openly drawn on the mainstream culture of the ’70s and ’80s. It has been these recognizable sign-posts that have brought outsiders into the electronica fold. And yet there is something incredibly quiet and eerie about Boards of Canada’s music. It has none of the cheer of alloyed pop.

But is it just a beautiful soundtrack for a camping trip of the soul? Or is there a grander gesture at play? If there is a larger message behind the album, its title and artwork suggest it’s a pluralistic one: Everyone has a stake in music.

In this sense, listening to Music Has the Right to Children is like inspecting your own childhood film strip against sunlight, or resurrecting old home movies with a refurbished projector. In each case, light is the only thing missing to transform the past into a new kind of now.

When watching Boards of Canada’s private psychedelic reel, that light is you. It’s your life that makes the picture. That’s your right. That’s your music.

1. Wildlife Analysis
2. An Eagle In Your Mind
3. The Color of the Fire
4. Telephasic Workshop
5. Triangles & Rhombuses
6. Sixtyten
7. Turquoise Hexagon Sun
8. Kaini Industries
9. Bocuma
11. Rue the Whirl
12. Aquarius
13. Olson
14. Pete Standing Alone
15. Smokes Quantity
16. Open the Light
17. One Very Important Thought
18. Happy Cycling

16. Rockers Hi-Fi – ‘Rockers to Rockers’

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Breakbeat, Downtempo, House | Tags: | No Comments »

Rockers Hi-Fi - 'Rockers to Rockers' 2

Rockers Hi-Fi * Rockers to Rockers * 1995 * Different Drummer / Island Records

Glyn Bush and Dick Whittingham hailed from Birmingham, England. Along with MC Farda P., they took a similar tack as Leftfield, fusing hip hop, house and dub reggae into a soulful blend of dance music. Rockers Hi-Fi, who were originally Original Rockers — rockers of the reggae variety, not rock ‘n’ roll — also took a big page from Afro-Caribbean music, striking a more hazy, kick-back vibe than their edgier peers.

Rockers to Rockers was their call to arms for a reclined generation. It was about grooving in a sunny sandbox and chilling in an island shack more than city fashions, fast cars or nightclubs. But the gents behind this Birmingham blunt-itude were no slackers either. Behind their garage sensibilities were solid rhythm rides, inventive drum patterns, bees and beats that put wings on words and sweet melodies lasting far out into the fading echoes.

Adding to Rockers Hi-Fi’s street cred was their own label, Different Drummer, which would later sponsor serious talents like Noiseshaper and Appaloosa. None of this would save their brilliant first album from a promotional letdown at Island Records. But it attests to their unique genius and underground initiative all the same.

Theirs is a story of survivability after all, inspired by the West Indian music scene of cold Birmingham. The blues credo of finding dignity and comfort amid long suffering is another key touchstone on Rockers to Rockers, where laidback raps on ‘What a Life!’ and soul singing on ‘D.T.I. (Don’t Stop the Music)’ urge the listener to look on the positive side and keep the community-building joy of music close to heart.

The album embarks with a bold heaping of Johnny Osbourne and The Scientist on ‘Push Push.’ Like a hurricane, it whips the listener inside winding columns of sub-bass and stabbing steel piano. It’s at once a bellicose and soothing introduction, its buzz-saw synth pulling you faster and faster into a calypso freak-out. ‘Rockers to Rockers’ follows with a quaking bass line and punching drums, its call-and-response answered by an elastic frequency bending like an ocean waterline while ‘More and More’ samples a black preacher from the Deep South, tying the music to another folkways blueprint, giving the electronic fervor an anchored gospel.

‘Round Reversion’ jumps Rockers into a higher gear, choo-choo-ing and chugging with a slick house beat and drum rattles, speeding through splashes and tunnels of roomy reverb. Closer ‘Seven Shades of Dub’ comes on from a distance with a deceptive chill, entrancing with its stepping keys and skanking syncopation before dropping out the floor with rumbling bass that begs for fancy footwork.

But the real golden dragon here is ‘Stoned (Manali Cream Mix),’ a dance floor classic that bombards the brain with gentle diving pings, its interlocking lines of delirious marimba and bass notes spinning the listener inside a reggae yellow submarine. Just as steam builds to a breaking point, a rocking beat knocks the knees while high-hats spit overhead to fever the mind, propelling the feet to glorious new heights as bells and whistles shadowbox the air. It’s light and heavy, keen and serene, moving the body and the spirit in all the right ways.

Rockers to Rockers would be Rockers Hi-Fi’s finest hour before they languished in major label hell. Subsequent albums failed to muster the same creative spark. The push for radio-friendly singles undermined their kinetic knack. Instead Rockers Hi-Fi would continue their impact behind DJ decks, as remixers (e.g. Music Is Immortal) and with their independent label.

As Whittingham and Bush quoted in the liner notes, where Different Drummer got its name, Henry David Thoreau wrote:

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Indeed, for electronica lovers who ever falter or stumble, Rockers to Rockers is always there to remind us: Keep on stepping, keep on rocking.

1. Push Push
2. Rockers to Rockers (come again)
3. What A Life!
4. More and More (the hidden persuader)
5. D.T.I. (don’t stop the music)
6. Round Reversion
7. Dick from Outaspace
8. Look for a Spark
9. Stoned (Manali Cream Mix)
10. Seven Shades of Dub

28. Ronnie & Clyde – ‘In Glorious Black and Blue’

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Breakbeat, Downtempo, Drum 'n' Bass | Tags: | No Comments »

Ronnie & Clyde - 'In Glorious Black and Blue'

31. Coco Steel & Lovebomb – ‘New World’

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Ambient, Ambient Techno, Downtempo, House | Tags: | No Comments »

Coco Steel & Lovebomb - 'New World'

32. Photek – ‘Modus Operandi’

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Ambient, Downtempo, Drum 'n' Bass | Tags: | No Comments »

Photek - 'Modus Operandi'

33. The Chemical Brothers – ‘Live at the Social , Volume 1′

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Breakbeat, Dance Rock, Downtempo, House, Techno | Tags: | No Comments »

Chemical Brothers - Live at the Social, Volume 1

35. Fila Brazillia – ‘Old Codes / New Chaos’

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Ambient, Ambient Techno, Downtempo, House | Tags: | No Comments »

Fila Brazillia - 'Old Codes / New Chaos'

40. Fila Brazillia – ‘Power Clown’

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Ambient Techno, Dance Rock, Downtempo, House | Tags: | No Comments »

Fila Brazillia - 'Power Clown'