Two histories of electronic music… and another charting 30 years in 30 records

The latest issue of Electronic Sound magazine presents A History of Electronic Music in 75 Records to celebrate 75 years of electronic music from 1945 to 2020.

It’s a personal selection (as much as a selection can be personal when selected by several people).

“The records we’ve singled out aren’t necessarily the best or the most important (although plenty of them meet both of those criteria), they’re stepping stones to take us from 1945 to 2020, places to stop a while and ponder the different directions electronic music has taken over the decades,” write editors Push and Mark Roland in the intro.

Just two weeks ago I finished reading Mars by 1980 – The Story of Electronic Music by David Stubbs, who also happens to be a contributor to the magazine. It’s a lovely book, as Uncut commented “a labour of love”, and also a very personal journey through the last 75 years. Stubbs tells the story of electronic music through his own adventures in sound and through the personal histories of some of the genre’s key creators.

The artists mentioned in the chapter headings give you a fair idea of Stubbs’s own journey through electronic music: Edgar Varese, Stockhausen, John Cage, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Stevie Wonder, Suicide, The Pet Shop Boys (although he says he doesn’t really like them), Kraftwerk, Joy Division, New Order, Human League, Depeche Mode, Brian Eno, the Aphex Twin, Cabaret Voltaire, J Dilla, Castlemorton and Skrillex.

They represent his lineage and many feature in the Electronic Sound selection (see here) and you would expect that but for me, the interesting part is what artists and records are missing.

What both selections almost ignore is what Stubbs’s friend and former Melody Maker colleague Simon Reynolds labelled the hardcore continuum. In Stubbs’s case, he admits to feeling estranged and threatened by rave when it exploded. Despite being only 24 when acid house arrived, it felt like a different generation’s music, a different generation’s drugs and a threat to his livelihood.

It might also have been in the back of his mind that his mate covered that period pretty damn finely in his own book Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture.

But it is odd that both histories fail to really hit upon rave, jungle, UK garage, dubstep or grime. Goldie gets a mention in Electronic Sound’s selection but for 1994’s smooth (intelligent?) drum’n’bass track ‘Inner City Life’, rather than something much rougher and arguably more ground-breaking such as Rufige Kru’s ‘Terminator’ from 1992.

Otherwise 1990-1994 runs LFO, Aphex Twin, Orbital, Underworld and, weirdly, Vangelis – because the Bladerunner soundtrack didn’t get an official release until 1994 despite the film coming out in 1982.

After Goldie in 1994 it is a very white, middle-class selection, which is fine, I guess, if this is a personal selection by white-middle class people (males?). It could be described as a slightly rockist selection of band-led, album-oriented artists.

Massive Attack get a mention for Mezzanine, although even that could be described as their indie rock record. The write-up describes it as “riffing on the urban angst of Portishead, Tricky and Adrian Sherwood’s On-U-Sound… as it headed into darker territory, eventually going into the pot that would become dubstep.” Which is debatable. It is a dark delight but it sees Massive Attack in rock mode, stripped of much of the black music influence that informed their first two records.

It is a difficult task picking these lists. If it is a list of “most influential” it almost becomes simpler. And I like the fact that Electronic Sound has not been shy to include classic scene-defining compilations such as Techno! The New Sound of Detroit and Street Sounds Electro 1. It also has a healthy selection of singles to accompany the albums. I recently wrote one of these ‘albums that had the most influence on me’ things on Facebook and realised that often, it is singles or particular tracks that have a greater influence on me than albums.

I don’t really have any complaints about the Electronic Sound selection before 1990. I really have no comment to make on the stuff from the 1940s and 50s. As I read Stubbs’ book, I explored a bit of Stockhausen, Varese and Schaeffer, I find it interesting from a historical point of view but practically unlistenable and I feel like the likes of Autechre (who don’t feature in the magazine selection) and sample collagists from The KLF to The Caretaker have taken that baton and run with it to far greater (and more listenable) effect.

But yeah, I like how it finds space for Sgt Pepper, Donna Summer (who also had a huge influence on Stubbs), Tomita (although again, there could be more Japanese music), Joe Gibbs & The Professionals (but not Scratch or Tubby), Blondie, This Mortal Coil, The Happy Mondays and Radiohead’s Kid A. Its entries certainly can be used as stepping stones for further exploration, so let’s add some more.

We have two very personal histories and I’m going to add one more – a personal selection of 30 electronic records from the last 30 years, 1990-2020.

Of Electronic Sound’s selection, I would probably have chosen Aphex’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and Coldcut’s Journeys by DJ (maybe Kid A). But that’s it. Hence, the list. So here we go…

The KLF – Chill Out (1990)

The first official mix album. The album that spawned the chill out room. After buying this and hearing and recording The Orb’s ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain that Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld’ on John Peel’s late-night radio show, a door was opened into the rave and into ambience, sampling and far beyond.

 

Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990)

And now for something a bit louder… You would probably put one of the earlier albums or singles in here if you were doing a longer history of electronic music but with tunes like ‘Fight the Power’ and ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ a major influence on the likes of The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers, it seems perfectly acceptable to include my favourite PE album here.

 

Quadrophonia – Quadrophonia (1990)

You could argue that the rave revolution started here. Acid house tracks had broken into the charts. Derrick May had brought techno to the charts. There had been bleep. But this one had the lot. It’s got bleeps, breakbeats, whoops and fucking massive chords that can’t fail to get the blood rushing. It’s even got a silly but kinda brilliant rap. It is a proper rave record –albeit a silly pop rave record. This is surely what Simon Reynolds was thinking about when he described the tunes at his first rave as “Carmina-Burana-gone-cubist”. It reached number 14 in the UK chart and rave was set to go stellar.

 

Human Resource – Dominator (1991)

The summer of 1991 and rave is in full swing. The techno coming out of Belgium and R&S Records in particular took the baton from Detroit and Sheffield and added what later became known as ‘hoover sounds’ but at the time just took the breath away with ‘what the fuck is this?’ disbelief.

‘Mentasm’ or ‘Energy Flash’ might have been first but ‘Dominator’ detonated the raves I was going to in the Sussex woods. Hardcore was born here.

 

Massive Attack – Blue Lines (1991)

Coldcut’s Matt Black considers ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ the single greatest track that the ‘dance movement’ has produced in the last 30 years.

It is hard to argue otherwise. But in many ways it cannot be compared to many of the other tracks on here. It is a soul classic – the equal of anything Stevie Wonder, Bobby Womack or Curtis Mayfield ever released. It’s that good.

However, the enduring influence of Massive Attack’s debut lies in tracks like ‘Five Nation Army’, which laid the blueprint for trip-hop, fusing dub reggae and hip hop to sublime effect. Blue Lines was an early indication that anything could be achieved when bringing together influences such as soul, hip hop, reggae, funk, house and sampling technology. It represents a state of mind, an attitude as much as anything else. And, as such, it was very much of its time.

 

Future Sound of London – Papua New Guinea (1991)

Whether smoking weed and listening to Colin Dale’s Outer Limits on Kiss FM or fucking losing your shit at a rave, this tune had/has it all.

 

My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991)

My Bloody Valentine were the only rock band able to match the psychedelic, Dionysian impact of rave. To witness MBV in concert was completely overwhelming – a barrage of noise and sound leaving you with twisted synapses. Beautiful and awesome in equal measure.

For years after this was released I didn’t really think there was any point listening to rock music. Loveless had taken rock as far out as it was possible to go. Kevin Shields probably thought so too, which might explain why it took him 22 years to release a follow-up.

 

Primal Scream – Screamadelica (1991)

Screamadelica put everything on the table. The singles that preceded it – particularly ‘Loaded’ and ‘Higher Than The Sun’ – hinted at what was emerging but the album just blew the bloody doors off.

Dub, house, disco, country, rock ‘n’roll, or “gospel, rhythm and blues, and jazz”. There were no longer any limits to where we could draw inspiration from, what we could mash together or where we could go. This was our time.

There is a reason why a third of the records in this 30-year history come from the years 1991-1995. Rave exploded in myriad directions in those years and lay the foundations for all that was to follow.

 

Blame – 2 Bad Mice Takes You (1992)

The fourth record on the Moving Shadow label was pretty good… The remix a year later was even better. There was no first jungle record, it was a natural evolution from hardcore breakbeat rave. This almighty rush of a record caught that evolution right on the cusp.

 

Leftfield – Release the Pressure (1992)

Between Blame’s first release and the remix coming out, a new genre was born that took some ravers in another direction. Leftfield’s ‘Release the Pressure’ was arguably the first progressive house record. Their debut ‘Not Forgotten’ is/was great but ‘Release the Pressure’ seemed to catch and influence the mood to a far greater extent.

The prog house sound became the archetype for the type of album-oriented artists that dominate the Electronic Sound selection. It was an embarrassing label for some pretty good artists (and some very average ones). As labels go, progressive house is right up there with intelligent dance music on the scale of descriptive to idiotic. I much preferred the word ‘braindance‘ that Aphex Twin used to describe the sound of his Rephlex label.

Prog house record labels like Guerilla and Cowboy Records dominated my record-buying for a short period and when this sound fused with darker, harder techno coming out Germany and Detroit, things would get really interesting.

 

The Criminal Minds – Baptised by Dub (1992)

Like Leftfield, The Criminal Minds took reggae as their starting point but underpinned it with a breakbeat. This really is proto-jungle. Wicked breaks, reggae stabs, that gradual acceleration of excitement exploding after a massive breakdown, scratchadelics and MC chatter, plus a political message: can’t beat the system, go with the flow…

 

 Two Girls One Boy Action – The Hawaiian Death Stomp (1993)

While hardcore and breakbeat reigned throughout most of the UK, there was a (sometimes snobby reaction) against it elsewhere. Progressive house took hold at clubs like Nottingham’s Rennaissance. Other clubs such as Andrew Weatherall’s Sabresonic and Colin Dale and Colin Faver’s Knowledge took the prog house sound a bit further and assaulted the senses of equally twisted ravers with a banging, dark and trippy form of techno that was as mind-melding and energy-infusing/sapping as anything proto-jungle had to offer.

This record kinda sits on that overlap between prog house and the techno barrage. It is a one-off super-group of sorts featuring four boys – David Holmes, Kris Needs of Secret Knowledge, Jagz Kooner and Gary Burns of Sabres of Paradise – and possibly Sabrettes’ Nina Walsh as the girl but she gets no credit on the label.

I made a mate a tape around this time called ‘Weird Techno Shit’ and it doesn’t get much weirder than this. Soundclash Republic’s One Monitor Shy is equally dark, psychedelic and full of drums, drums, drums… Jungle music but not jungle.

 

Hardfloor – Acperience 1

The dark techno of Sabresonic’s dancefloor would morph with progressive house to become the next big thing in the form of the sort of trance showcased at Sheffield’s Gatecrasher club. It was the bastard offspring of this acid revivalist monster.

 

Omni Trio – Renegade Snares (Foul Play VIP Remix) (1993)

 You can stick the label up yer arse but if you want intelligent jungle then this is it.

 

The Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works II (1994)

Another record like Screamadelica or Loveless that really sounded like nothing before it – although a helluva lot would follow in its wake. Like Loveless, this is an extreme record, taking ambient further into the ether than ever before. Richard D. James talked about lucid dreaming in interviews to explain how he came about the sound. He could well have been talking bollocks but it certainly sounded like the music of dreams, alright. Few records have ever sounded so blissed.

 

Boards of Canada – Music has the right to Children (1998)

More bliss but with a bucolic charm and a childlike sense of wonder, nostalgia… inventing hauntology six years ahead of the first Ghost Box record. Here’s why this is the greatest psychedelic album of the 1990s.

 

Fatboy Slim – You’ve come a long way, baby (1998)

Big, bold, stupid. A brilliant return to rave’s roots reintroducing the rush, the fun and the silliness to an increasingly earnest dance music scene. Party music par excellence.

 

Susumu Yokota – Sakura (1999)

If these are stepping stones, consider this record your jumping off point for an exploration of Japanese ambient music. You could pick any number of Susumu Yokota’s best albums in a selection like this but Sakura is considered the classic for good reason. Electronic music has never sounded so organic or natural. Check his predecessors on Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980​-​1990.

 

Aaliyah – Try Again (2000)

Timbaland, The Neptunes and Organised Noise ruled the charts during the early noughties and had a massive influence on pop for the next decade. The charts would never sound so vital again. Missy Elliot’s ‘Get Ur Freak On‘ was an audacious party-starter but Aaliyah’s perfect pop songs were the perfect foil for Timbaland’s alchemy. The influence of songs like ‘Try Again’ and ‘We need a Resolution’ can be heard in everything from Beyonce to UK Garage, which would set the foundations for grime and dubstep, which would cross back over to the US and form the undercarriage of EDM.

 

Outkast – Ms Jackson (2000)

Outkast make great hip hop. They also make great pop. They also had a massive influence on the sound of hip hop. The Organised Noise sound can be heard all over hip hop’s favourite sons during the 20 years since – from Lil Wayne to Kendrick Lamarr to Future. If you had to pick one album it would be Aquemini but Ms Jackson was the commercial summit, with beats stitched on backwards and a bittersweet melody it sounded like The Beatles reborn in Atlanta in the year 2000.

 

Dizzee Rascal – Fix Up, Look Sharp (2003)

I coulda happily included ‘Bonkers‘ on this list but as I’m sorta semi-trying to do a history lesson here, ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’ wins as it came earlier. Dizzee’s influence is massive and this just bangs. You can listen to the award-winning album Boy In Da Corner if you want to explore further but I can never quite listen to Dizzee for a whole album. This sums up the sound of twenty-first century London for me – for better and worse.

 

Rhythm & Sound – ‘See Mi Yah’ (2004)

Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald’s earlier Basic Channel guise is more celebrated but give me the reggae version any day of the week. This riddim album (with multiple vocalists chanting over the same riddim) is like reggae trance taken as far as it can go. Always the same, always evolving, never dull. Dubwise perfection.

Ernestus and Von Oswald went their separate ways after this album, suggesting they didn’t think they could take it any further either. Ernestus took his dubwise dynamics to Africa and teamed up with with Senegalese drummers Jeri-Jeri and his Mbalax group Ndagga Rhythm Force to devastating effect, while Von Oswald went sorta jazz with The Moritz Von Oswald Trio, to less devastating effect.

 

Burial – Untrue (2007)

Dubstep but not dubstep. Echoes of raves and jungle and two-step but memories of love and loss and dancing and night buses and after-parties and…. There are few sounds as heart wrenchingly beautiful as those that Burial  wrings from his computer on Untrue. Here’s an argument for Untrue being the most important electronic album of the 21st century.

 

Lindstrøm – Where you go I go too (2008)

Lindstrøm took cosmic disco into the stratosphere on his debut album. The opening track of Pink Floydian disco stretches the rave rush to 28 minutes and 58 seconds of ecstasy. That’s quite some feat. Prins Thomas takes a beautiful ambient journey through cosmic disco on Principe Del Norte, while DJ Koze’s albums give cosmic disco a funky swing but Lindstrøm gave cosmic disco its most spaced out exhibit with his very first effort.

 

Erykah Badu: New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh (2010)

The hipster’s choice (weirdly) would have been Beyonce’s Lemonade but I’ve never managed to listen to it all the way through, so that would be fibbing and defeating the point of the exercise. However, Lemonade pretty much sums up state of the art (and hence electronic) pop in the 2010s.

Erykah Badu’s psychedelic soul masterpiece arrived six years earlier and covers pretty much every base for me. It updates Stevie Wonder’s adventures in early synth technology for the 21st century and echoes Massive Attack’s soul masterpiece Blue Lines. New Amerykah Part One is perhaps more adventurous but less consistently beautiful.

 

Voices from the Lake – Voices from the Lake (2012)

When someone once asks me what music I like, my normal response is ‘everything from Madonna to My Bloody Valentine but my real passions are techno and reggae’. And then I might add that my absolute favourite music is mellow, trancey, dubby techno. Donato Dozzy and Neel perfected that sound on Voices from the Lake.

 

DJ Sprinkles – Queerifications & Ruins – Collected remixes by DJ Sprinkles (2013)

I don’t really like house music but a lot of the house music I do like was released before 1990. This compilation of DJ Sprinkles’ remixes contains everything I love about house music when I do like it. It is as deep as an album containing a ‘rock bottom mix’ and a ‘deeperama’ mix should be. Oceanic house that’s filled with melody yet hypnotically repetitive.

 

Objekt – Flatland (2014)

What has happened to electronic music during the past 10 years? Footwork speeded things up (coulda picked Jlin). A Love From Outer Space slowed things down (coulda picked John Talabot’s Cheaters or Kolsch’s Der Alte). Music From Saharan Cellphones summed up the globalisation of electronic music in a snappy album title (coulda picked Ariwo or some deep reggaeton from DJ Python perhaps). In what looks like a reaction against the democratisation of music-making technology, untold amounts of musos turned to analogue synths for some kind of authenticity (nah…). Quite a lot of droney ambient was released (covered). Hip hop took over the world (ditto).

So, what represented the cutting edge in the 2010s?

I only realised the answer to this might be Objekt after seeing him perform live at Terraforma Festival in Italy. His twisted beats and walls of noise shift dub and electronics into all sorts of new directions. The result is an awe-inspiring euphoria that feels as fresh as any new development in electronic sound from the past 30 years.

 

Max Richter – Sleep (2015)

The evolution of recorded sound from physical formats to digital has allowed certain artists to venture far beyond the time limitations imposed by records or CDs. Sleep is, perhaps, the ultimate ambient album – an eight-and-a-half hour lullaby designed to be listened to while you fall asleep and to accompany your dreams.

Richter describes it as “a manifesto for a slower pace of existence… a protest against our relentlessly switched on lives”. That’s certainly an agenda that resonates with me. The shorter From Sleep contains highlights and is designed for daytime drifting. It is equally essential.

 

Autechre – NTS Sessions 1-4 (2018)

Autechre could have featured much earlier in this selection. Their debut album Incunabula from 1993 contains sublime electro and ambient techno. They helped to kick off the intelligent (uurgggh) dance music revolution with their contributions to the scene-defining Artificial Intelligence compilations on Autechre’s label Warp.

They crafted their sound on albums such as Chiastic Slide going further out into abstract electronics, alienating listeners and attracting them in equal measure.

Being freed from physical limitations allowed Autechre to release the four-hour Elseq to a mixed critical response and a slew of live recordings that delighted fans. An Autechre live performance summons an atmosphere of devotional intensity with the band demanding the venue to be cloaked in as much darkness as emergency lighting will allow.

NTS Sessions was seen by many critics as a culmination of all their experiments in sound – an eight-hour epic that works as a single piece or as four albums. Autechre might be the scene’s most uncompromising non-conformists, so the culmination of their adventures in sound, or even just the latest of their adventures, provides a fitting conclusion for any history of the past 30 years of electronic music.

 

Buy Mars by 1980 – The Story of Electronic Music here.

Buy Electronic Sound magazine here.

 

 

 

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