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.

1. Underworld – ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’

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

Underworld - Dubnobasswithmyheadman

Underworld * Dubnobasswithmyheadman * 1994 * Junior Boys Own / Wax Trax!

“Thunder, thunder, lightning ahead, hummm. Will you kiss me dark and long?”

So whispers Karl Hyde at the beginning of DubnobasswithmyheadmanUnderworld‘s loopily titled audio odyssey and breakout techno album of 1994. Prior to its release no one had heard anything like it, with its blend of sawing analog synths and surreal cut-up poetry, its rush of futuristic rock and breakbeat rhythms. By the time it soaked into DJ sets and the listening press, Underworld were underground superstars.

Formed by Hyde and Rick Smith, old mates from Cardiff Art College in Wales, Underworld had already made a run at musical success in the ’80s. Originally as the band Freur, they penned the new wave hit ‘Doot Doot.’ They even toured with the Eurythmics as an industrial funk outfit. But with each turn they found themselves with no money and diminishing prospects.

In between their commercial ups and downs, Hyde cut out a wayward living as a session guitarist, first at Prince’s Paisley Park studio in Minneapolis. When he moved to New York City to tour with Blondie’s Debbie Harry, he discovered acid house and began to scissor the Village Voice newspaper and rearrange phrases into lyrics. On a parallel track back in England, Smith had teamed up with Darren Emerson, a young DJ who knew the ins and outs of dance music. When Hyde returned, they fused his wordplay and guitar licks with their electronics, using techno as the dominant force for their chimera music.

In 1992, they played a legendary 18-hour set at the Glastonbury Music Festival in the Experimental Sound Field, freewheeling from a tower stage placed in the middle of a blissed-out crowd, quadraphonic speakers blasting them all to a new frontier. Underworld could write songs, but they were first and foremost composers who knew how to jam live with power to the people.  Dubnobasswithmyheadman perfectly crystallized this expansive, blistering dynamic.

First on vinyl, Underworld’s manifesto ignited dance floors across the globe. The outtake single ‘Rez’ added to the buzz, an instant anthem of instrumental youth music and an unforgettable merry-go-round of sound. Everyone who knows it remembers where they were the first time they heard its oscillating strings of zipping fire. And as one of the early techno albums to hit the compact disc format, Dubnobasswithmyheadman flashed onto discmans and car stereos with equal heat. It was a headphone epic as well as a perfect night drive.

With Dubnobasswithmyheadman, the energetic magic of ‘Rez’ was spread across a whole album, yielding inventive compositions of what sounded like the glorious end of pop music. Hyde’s lines like “Whiplash Willy the motor psycho” and “Here comes Christ on crutches” were humorous and dark, floating above synth riffs or crashing through a haze of textures — impressionistic images painted onto the wild sonic shapes conjured by Smith and Emerson.

‘Dark & Long,’ ‘Mmm Skyscraper I Love You,’ ‘Surfboy,’ ‘Spoonman,’ ‘Tongue,’ Cowgirl,’ ‘Dirty Epic,’ ‘River of Bass,’ ‘M.E.’ — each were bold statements in their own right yet essential pieces in a seamless nocturnal symphony. By the time one got to the romantic ‘Dirty Epic’ and stood at the pearly gates of ‘Cowgirl,’ Hyde frantically repeating “I’m invisible, and a razor of love,” you were no longer listening as a bystander. You were wrapped up inside something bigger.

“Everything, everything, everything,” Hyde sings to the futuristic hoedown of ecstatic rhythms before leaving you dazed in a cloud of sparks and pinball melodies. Was it dance rock? Was it techno for the masses? Was it pop music for the next millennium, its post-modern poetry raining down through an electronic ether?

Dubnobasswithmyheadman was all those things, and more. It was the Beatnik jam session of a new generation.

1. Dark & Long
2. Mmm Skyscraper I Love You
3. Surfboy
4. Spoonman
5. Tongue
6. Dirty Epic
7. Cowgirl
8. River of Bass
9. M.E.

2. Orbital – ‘Orbital 2′ (The Brown Album)

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

Orbital - Orbital II

Orbital * Orbital 2 (The ‘Brown Album’) * 1993 * London Records / FFRR

“Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day. Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day…”

By 1993, ‘acid house’ was taking the world by storm. At the head of that charge were two brothers who had a gift for marrying incendiary rhythms to euphoric melodies. They called themselves Orbital, a name inspired by the M25 ‘orbital’ motorway that fed Greater London’s outdoor rave scene. Their first two hits, ‘Chime’ and ‘Belfast,’ were wordless wonders, perfectly capturing the communal energy of dance parties across Europe.

But rock fans and critics were still scratching their heads with this new sound: The conceit was that techno had no message and no soul. Phil and Paul Hartnoll were the antithesis of that stereotype. They had grown up steeped in punk, hip hop and working class values. Both were concerned about social inequality and the dangers of technology. They were members of Greenpeace and in 1996 recorded ‘The Girl with the Sun in Her Head’ using a solar generator.

Techno was predominately instrumental music. But it still needed words and word of mouth to help convey its essential message of empowerment — that the poetic meaning of its interacting notes and beats was infinite and democratic. Orbital’s exhilarating second album, 1993′s “Brown Album,” made that case better than anyone. It was packed with sheer sonic joy and raw primal energy. Yet it was its odd voice samples about time loops and stopped clocks that firmly placed the listener in a pinpoint relationship with history and the universe.

The starter ‘Planet of the Shapes’ was a sonic war of the worlds. Its blow-torched sheets of metal clashed over booming beats while a serene melody piped as if it were played by the mythic Pan enmeshed in elastic, elysian drones. ‘Lush 3-1′ and ‘Lush 3-2′ wound through melancholy notes with chugging rhythms in an Edenic spring rain. ‘Impact (The Earth is Burning)’ tipped a hat to dinosaur-killing meteorites, muscular bass plunging into a maelstrom of baroque chaos, while ‘Remind’ set things adrift with the Earth’s surface still smoldering, a descending frequency cutting loose to banging drums.

‘Walk Now…’ continued Orbital 2‘s progression, its didgeridoo suggesting an aboriginal Dreamtime, the hunt for prey afoot. ‘Monday’ made a break to industrial clocks, its contemplative melody conjuring the prospect of endless Mondays spent in cubicles — sci-fi jazz with a stiff drink.

But the album’s most astonishing moment came last with ‘Halcyon + On + On.’ It was dedicated by Paul and Phil to their mother, a tribute to her long battle with addiction to the prescribed halcion insomnia drug. It’s one of the most beautiful compositions ever written — its warm waves and uplifting groove moving through sadness and pain to joy and optimism.

In the context of the times, ‘Halcyon’ evoked an age of peace. The word “halcyon” is the ancient Greek name for kingfisher birds once believed to nest on calm seas. Like Future Sound of London‘s ‘Papua New Guinea,’ ‘Halcyon’ was part of an introspective tide in ’90s dance culture, a turning away from hedonism to consider larger questions about life and the mixed promise of new technology.

Orbital still remains a great synthesis in that quest. They were less accessible than bands like Underworld and the Chemical Brothers. Their ’90s output was more purely electronic. But at the center of their music was a deep emotionality, drawing on the Hartnolls’ anger about the environment and social injustice.

But they weren’t bleak bleepers. The way in which Orbital 2 weaved into the soul also gave individual expression to inchoate yearnings for global harmony. At the dawn of the Internet Age, it was electronic music that gave that impulse it’s highest form.

Orbital’s carefully chosen words were collective signposts to that world of extraordinary possibilities. Stepping through, the rest was pure, unadulturated magic.

1. Time Becomes
2. Planet of the Shapes
3. Lush 3-1
4. Lush 3-2
5. Impact (The earth is burning)
6. Remind
7. Walk Now…
8. Monday
9. Halcyon + On + On
10. Input Out

3. Future Sound of London – ‘Lifeforms’

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

FSOL - Lifeforms 2

Future Sound of London * Lifeforms * 1994 * Astralwerks / Virgin

Future Sound of London‘s second album was another quantum leap after their acid house debut Accelerator. It sounded as if they had blown up their samplers and sequencers with dynamite and then meticulously retooled their techno circuits with needles and thread. The result was a futuristic masterpiece that is both unsettling and strangely intoxicating. From the tentacled breakbeat ride ‘Cascade’ to the soaring hawk flight of the title track, Lifeforms explored a haunting fusion of Nature and Technology.

Years after its release, in his book Generation EcstasySimon Reynolds dismissed FSOL’s magnum opus as self-indulgent prog slop, akin to Yes‘s Tales of a Topographic Ocean — he argued that the best electronic music followed in the tradition of hardcore punk. Like Reynolds, many DJs and fans were also disappointed because FSOL’s new direction was worlds away from the rhythmic nirvana of their breakout anthem ‘Papua New Guinea.’ Not one track on the double album was a convincing dance number.

Instead, Lifeforms “combined a sense of queasy, dystopian bleakness with moments of sharply exquisite beauty,” critic Tim Barr wrote. FSOL’s grand statement was not ‘prog rock’ reincarnated, as Reynolds charged. It was too weird for that. Rather it was a culturally dissonant exercise in surgical sonic mayhem.

Beyond concepts, it was album highlights ‘Among Myselves,’ ‘Omnipresence’ and ‘Room 208′ that marked FSOL’s audio journey as a revelatory experience. The astonishing ‘Among Myselves’ pulsed with a heartbeat rhythm, bittersweet melodies climaxing with a distorted horn warbling like some disembodied waterbird. ‘Omnipresence’ and ‘Room 208′ were more city than wilderness. The latter rolled to a sliding groove, calling to mind a night drive through Babylon, its shimmering synth stepping like Harry Faltermeyer‘s ‘Axel F’ from another planet.

As repeated listens to Lifeforms demonstrate, Future Sound of London didn’t turn their noses up at the dance floor, they’d simply moved sideways with a confidence rarely shared by their peers. And what they crafted as a result, sublimating dance floor dynamics into an acid raincloud, still never seizes to amaze.

Years later, Lifeforms remains a touchstone for many electronica fans. And rightly so. It’s lonely but angelic, fleeting yet timeless, always bringing new insights to life.

1. Cascade
2. Ill Flower
3. Flak
4. Bird Wings
5. Dead Skin Cells
6. Lifeforms
7. Eggshell
8. Among Myselves

1. Domain
2. Spineless Jelly
3. Interstat
4. Vertical Pig
5. Cerebral
6. Life Form Ends
7. Vit
8. Omnipresence
9. Room 208
10. Elaborate Burn
11. Little Brother

4. Leftfield – ‘Rhythm and Stealth’

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

Leftfield - Rhythm and Stealth

Leftfield * Rhythm and Stealth * 1999 * Hard Hands / Columbia

Rhythm and Stealth is a brooding onslaught of electronic wizardry. From the streetwise raps of Roots Manuva on ‘Dusted,’ to the Afrika Bambaata throwdown of ‘Afrika Shox’ to the spectral beauty of ‘Swords,’ this swan song from one of England’s techno supergroups is the final statement on ’90s electronica.

Unlike 1995′s LeftismLeftfield‘s popular first album, 1999′s Rhythm and Stealth was jagged and austere in its first impressions. At its core was still Neil Barnes and Paul Daley’s unmistakable blend of thundering techno, dub science, hip hop beats, house rhythms and punk attitude. But their approach was now deeper in its studio precision, more beguiling in its sonic tricks, and in the end far more Detroit than Ibiza.

Reference points of place and genre fail to convey the album’s true genius though, ranging from masterful experiments in the percussive warping of space-time to 21st Century songs that beam melodies through echo-prisms like zigzagging lasers. ‘Chant of a Poorman’ and ‘El Cid’ use reverbed drums and sharpshooting notes to excellent effect. Both drift in a sonic bayou, nocturnal dub submersed in shimmering tones and lit up by ricocheting, croaking zaps.

Barnstormer ‘Afrika Shox’ takes a two-note bass pattern and reverses it, sucking it back up like a trap door, looping out to an assembly line of Zulu dreams. ‘Phat Planet’ is a metallic storm of funky change-ups and slapping high-hats that whip the air so hard they light the aural darkness like white torch blasts. When the track climaxes with a searing drum solo, the beat booms back in slightly after the downbeat with wicked inflection, resetting the vector points of polyrhythm.

And closer ‘Rino’s Prayer’ rises to a simmering Mideastern wail, a little goodwill before the epochal upsets of the coming years between East and West. Sine waves build to a mountain peak, cymbal crashes bringing down the sky as Leftfield gently float us down to a gentle throb, pondering their last prescient prayer for peace.

Leftism still gets the most kudos from critics and fans alike. It captured the heady days from 1993 to 1996 and was a chart success. But its sequel is Leftfield’s true masterpiece, a flawless, challenging work of art built to outsmart the march of time. Listen closely and you’ll be hooked, never quite able to crack its bewitching code.

1. Dusted
2. Phat Planet
3. Chant of a Poor Man
4. Double Flash
5. El Cid
6. Afrika Shox
7. Dub Gussett
8. Swords
9. 6/8 War
10. Rino’s Prayer

6. Aphex Twin – ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92′

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

Aphex Twin - 'Selected Ambient Works 85-92'

Aphex Twin * Selected Ambient Works 85-92 * 1993 * R&S Records

Aphex Twin, aka Richard D. James, is the court jester of electronica. But he wasn’t always the king of cyber clowns. His career started first with the romantic trills and earnest dreams of his debut full-length, Selected Ambient Works 85-92. In it, he presented soft twilit songs seemingly composed with the grace of a divine hand. Clearly on the face of it, here was an artist with melody deep in his bones. Even more inspiring was the sense of joy and freedom James betrayed in allying his sweet lines to oceanic beats and lulling bass patterns.

Compositions like ‘Xtal’ and ‘Tha’ pulsed to lub-dub rhythms, their gentle notes floating like virtual moths in a perfect dream-zone between trance and polyphony. ‘Ptolemy’ bumped to a call and response between synth lines that sounded like they were deep in a playful conversation under swaying palm trees. ‘Heliosphan’ and ‘Pulsewidth’ dropped the listener into whirlpools of bliss. And ‘We Are the Music Makers’ took a Willy Wonka voice sample and scrubbed it over sub-bass grooves, shimmering keys dancing over the rumble like a fleet of fireflies.

The famed avant-garde composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, once heard some of Aphex Twin’s early music and commented to The Wire magazine that James should stop fiddling with post-African rhythms and exercise his gifts within changing time signatures. He found the percussive ‘repetitiveness’ beneath him. James responded, “I thought he should listen to a couple of tracks of mine: ‘Didgeridoo,’ then he’d stop making abstract, random patterns you can’t dance to.”

It was a typical retort of Aphex Twin humor: ‘Digeridoo’ is Aphex Twin’s most devastating dance floor track, a 160-bpm blaze of warped genius. Stockhausen would have vomited on hearing it. But James was making a point about form and function. Ironically though, in some ways he seemed to embrace Stockhausen’s Euro-centric bias in subsequent works. Most of James’ later career has been marked by a severe adherence to hiccup breakbeats and fractured temporal flows.

Despite Stockhausen’s dismissals and still only in his twenties at the time, Selected made James an instant superstar. No doubt it helped him gain the respect of disparate artists like Philip GlassBrian Eno and Thom Yorke. A Japanese poet was so touched by his music that she had her Aphex Twin collection buried with her when she died. Aphex Twin arrangements have also been played by orchestras, from the London Sinfonietta to the New York ensemble Fireworks, who covered ‘Analogue Bubblebath’ — his first classic piece, co-written with Global Communication‘s Tom Middleton.

Even with all his antics and artistic excesses, one still suspects the Aphex Twin could write tranquil beauties in his sleep. Like leaves shaken from a branch, like his wicked jokes. He has given us glimpses with ‘Next Heap With,’ ‘Alberto Balsalm’ and ‘XMD 5a,’ but never in the span of a whole act like Selected. Maybe someday he’ll grace us again with another post-African love letter. Until then, his jester’s tears will always shine brightest here, in his first hypnotic jest.

1. Xtal
2. Tha
3. Pulsewidth
4. Ageispolis
5. i
6. Green Calx
7. Heliosphan
8. We Are the Music Makers
9. Schottkey 7th Path
10. Ptolemy
11. Hedphelym
12. Delphium
13. Actium

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

8. The Black Dog – ‘The Temple of Transparent Balls’

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

Black Dog - Temple of Transparent Balls

The Black Dog * Temple of Transparent Balls * 1993 * GPR

The Black Dog was one of the first ‘intelligent dance music’ outfits to carry the Warp Records banner. Celebrated in the press and adored by Bjork, The Black Dog was a three-man effort: Ken Downie, an ex-Naval radio operator, and b-boys Andy Turner and Ed Handley, who later formed Plaid on their own. The three released several groundbreaking EPs in the early ’90s (later collected on 2007′s Book of Dogma).

In 1993, the trio released their two best albums, Bytes on Warp, and Temple of Transparent Balls on GPR. The second effort took more chances and is more coherent, recorded during an extended stay in Belgium. It’s filled with tinker toy melodies and drunken electronics, at times astray in a sad metropolis or jumping for joy in a sonic junkyard of the future.

The Black Dog was an odd complex of worldviews, fusing ‘bleep’ techno with dub and hip hop sensibilities. Temple compressed those influences into a sonic gemstone. “From the opening digital skank of ‘Cost I’ to the closing circuit board tears on ‘The Crete That Crete Made,’” critic Peter McIntyre wrote, it “took every single strand of modern music, mixed it all up and produced something that sounded like nothing else on the planet.”

Tracks like ’4, 7, 8′ and ‘Sharp Shooting on Saturn’ swayed like marionettes to delirious melodies. ‘Jupiter’ revved like a possessed motor, a bumper car ride through an eye-popping bubble city. ‘Mango’ followed a similar line, this time freaking to Latin rhythms and ragtime keys — a frenetic jam session in a video game jungle. Serious numbers like ‘Cost II’ and ‘In the Light of the Grey’ glided through darker environs, at once quirky and moody, while ‘The Crete That Crete Made’ was a lullaby for robots.

The Black Dog was always mercurial in its experiments, an upside down world of zero gravity fantasies. Later productions would prove consistently powerful in their delicateness. But nothing they did before or after, together or apart, quite matched the feverish games in the Temple of Transparent Balls. Step inside, and find yourself break-dancing in an astronaut’s dream.

1. Cost I
2. Cost II
3. 4, 7, 8
4. The Actor and Audience
5. Jupiter
6. Kings of Sparta
7. Sharp Shooting on Saturn
8. Mango
9. Cycle
10. In the Light of Grey
11. The Crete That Crete Made

10. Ismistik – ‘Remain’

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

Ismistik - Remain

Ismistik * Remain * 1994 * DJAX

The quiet masterpiece of Norway’s Bjorn Torske and Mette Brundtland, Ismistik’s Remain is a bittersweet, dreamy record. It sounds like it was literally handcrafted, gentle care put into every electronic note and beat. So that decades later, its delicate beauty still glows with a numinous light that renews mind and spirit.

As music critic Tim Barr once declared, Remain was the sound of a group “surfing romantic moods, experimentalism and pure electronic genius.”

At the heart of that sound was a longing from the outer limits of humanity. Ismistik hailed from the small harbor city of Tromso, which sits in the northern reaches of Norway, inside the Arctic circle and in the middle of the aurora borealis zone. It’s a magical but harsh setting. In summertime, the days are long and beautiful with a deep blue ocean glittering under snowcapped mountains. Flowers and animals creak into colorful activity after long slumbers. From May to July, the midnight sun never sets.

But in winter, Tromso is shrouded in cold darkness as the polar night extends from October to March. With the stars bright, this “Detroit of the north” turns into a frontier settlement at Earth’s edge, its boats sputtering off in the distance like spaceships. The mystic show of the northern lights limns the sky with curtains of green, red and purple, electrons dancing in the Earth’s magnetic field.

Remain refracted all of these natural phenomena. It perfectly captured the native yearnings of Tromso’s electronic scene — which included Royksopp‘s Torbjorn Brundtland, Biosphere‘s Geir Jenssen and Mental Overdrive‘s Per Martinsen — as well as the global idealism of the time. The delicate ‘Absence’ falls like a ghost of an avalanche in slow motion. ‘Orange Peel’ and ‘Woodvibe’ chirp with melodies fine as sunshine creeping through a morning mountain cloud. And the understated ‘Bulb’ is hands down one of the most beautiful electronica compositions ever written, surfing on heartache and determined optimism.

Released in a golden year for electronica, 1994, Remain‘s remote milieu in the Arctic climes of northern Scandinavia muted its international impact. Subsequent releases by Torske under his own name took on a sunnier flavor, the northern lights of his hometown increasingly faint in his grooving chords. Which makes the singular brilliance of his debut album with Brundtland all the more wistful.

Made at a time when electronic music was reaching every remote outpost of humanity, Remain‘s simultaneous appeal and obscurity remains a poetic testament to the power of Ismistik’s romantic wonder. It’s the little album that could. And it still gives those who know it, big, awesome chills.

1. Absence
2. Woodvibe
3. Orange Peel
4. Running Water
5. Cassis
6. Daybreak
7. Bulb
8. Tortoise Thoughts
9. Phidou
10. Flowcharts Remade
11. Cycling

11. Speedy J – ‘G Spot’

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

Speedy J - G Spot

Speedy J * G Spot * 1995 * Warp

Jochem Paap’s sleek G Spot hums with a motor built to last through the next millennium. Composed during several months of recovery from life-threatening glandular fever, it’s a deeply thoughtful album pumping with industrial-strength muscle. And while Speedy J‘s Public Energy No. 1 got more recognition because of its glitchy innovations, in retrospect G Spot is his most stirring work. ‘Ping Pong,’ ‘The Oil Zone’ and ‘G Spot’ are the finest entrancers techno has ever had to offer.

Paap grew up in the busy port city of Rotterdam, Holland. As a precocious hip hop DJ with legendary skills, he earned the name Speedy J early on in his career. In the ’90s he discovered techno and never looked back, signing onto Richie Hawtin’s Plus 8 label and England’s Warp Records. His first album, Ginger, displayed a knack for spacious grooves screwed tightly to dramatic switches in compressed tone and design.

“I work from graphic ideas,” Paap told MONDO Magazine in 1997, sounding like a Dutch painting master. “I don’t work from music. I don’t get melodies or tunes in my head. If I hear a sound, I don’t remember it from the way it sounds, but by the way it looks.”

G Spot took those instincts to the next level while remaining firmly on the dance floor. Trance classic ‘Ping Pong’ slings to an inventive interplay between wide-as-sky bass and what sounds like a plastic ball bouncing back and forth through an air tube. ‘The Oil Zone’ slinks with craning industrial beats and rising gaseous synths that call to mind the image of a self-replicating robot factory on Mars. And the titanic ‘G Spot’ blazes like a G-force dogfight high in the sky, its electric storm of sparkling explosions rippling through the atmosphere.

G Spot‘s sexual connotations fit the album in one very important sense. It’s a sci-fi trip that consistently widens the eyes and sends shivers up and down the spine. But just as much as it taps into the senses, it works out the brain. It’s a devastating mix, and all the more powerful because years later, it still gleams as the state-of-the-art.

1. The Fun Equations
2. Ping Pong
3. Fill 25
4. Lanzarote
5. Extruma
6. The Oil Zone
7. Treatments
8. Fill 17
9. G Spot
10. Grogno