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Thursday, June 02, 2005
Genre Playlist: Electronica
Electronica is a distant descendant of both disco and funk, two 70's music styles that were club and dance oriented. Both were associated with establishing a groove; an extended beat-driven instrumental section (sometimes accompanied by vocals or sound effects). As the 1980's wore on, band-driven disco and funk had become passe. With the advent of digital effects and sampling, and the refinement of synthesizers, dance and club music became technology driven, with artists exploring new electronic beats.
The formative years were in the post-disco era of the early 1980's. Central to the movement were the club-heavy cities of New York, Chicago, and Detroit; within each locale, a regionally specific form of purely electronic music developed, with beats maximized to insanely rapid paces; in Detroit, this music was called techno; in New York and Chicago, it was called house.
This new technologically driven club/dance movement became a genre unto itself; the broadest genre definition has come to be called electronica, which is an umbrella for techno, house, and literally dozens of even more specific subgenres.
In the late 1980's, a new form of these musics appeared in the clubs of England; it fused the pure, raw electronic sounds of house and techno with a lush, organic sensuality that often included some actual traditional instrumentation or vocals; this English electronica was the genesis of two primary electronica subgenres, trip-hop and jungle (also known as drum 'n' bass).
As the 1990's began, electronica no longer was strictly about dancing; as trip-hop and drum 'n' bass slowed the grooves, newer subgenres designed for headphones and chill-out areas began to appear, usually fusions of existing subgenres. These include ambient house, tech-house, and many others.
As a music form, it has been in existence for two decades, and has remained robust; sending numerous hits into the charts, occupying the lion's share of club and dance music, and undergoing reinventions every time technology takes a step further. As long as there are dancers, headphones, and new technology, electronica's future, and position at the leading edge of many innovations in music, seems more assured than any other genre or style of music in existence.
Some important/influential electronica artists/songs include:
1. The Chemical Brothers: Block Rockin' Beats iTunes
The Chemical Brothers were the first electronica act to really crossover bigtime into the mainstream, helping to popularize the movement. A remarkable synthesis of diverse elements like Cabaret Voltaire, Public Enemy, and My Bloody Valentine, their 1997 "Block Rockin' Beats" was an enormous club hit; their 1999 album, Surrender made the top-40 on the Billboard album chart, a feat matched by the follow-up, Come With Us, in 2002; very high showings for electronica albums. A duo of British deejays, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, they called themselves the Dust Brothers at first, in tribute to the team that produced the Beatie Boys' Paul's Boutique. A cease and desist followed, necessitating a name change. "Block Rockin' beats" uses a Schooly D vocal sample, and pitch-bent synth work.
2. Moby: Go iTunes
"Go" was Moby's debut, reaching the top-10 in England in 1991. In his early career, Moby fused rapid disco beats with heavy distorted guitars and punk rhythms, giving him appeal among some rock listeners, too. He was a controversial figure, musically and publicly; techno artists thought his genre fusions were diluting the music, he also came under fire for his radical Christian beliefs and vegan activism. His popularity began to fade in England just as America discovered him; his 1999 album Play was a huge breakout in the U.S., reaching the top-40.
3. Aphex Twin: Pulsewidth
Aphex Twin is Richard D. James, and has probably garnered more critical praise than anyone else on this list, helping to create the ambient techno genre. He had his first hit with the manic "Didgeridoo", an acid thrash of rapidfire beats, but most of his work has been in an ambient, downtempo vein. He's hard to pigeonhole; he also made a series of freakish pop singles in a stated attempt to crash the top-10, each a strange little sardonic mini-classic of ironic absurdity. "We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams" is the single quote that appears over and over in varying contexsts on his landmark 1993 album,
Selected Ambient Works 85-92; a collection of spare, minimalist beats and synth washes; it is the genesis of ambient techno. "Pulsewidth" is a good sample cut, and got a lot of club play.
4. The Orb: Towers Of Dub iTunes
The Orb deserve credit for helping invent ambient house. Ambient House differs from Ambient Techno in that it is equally designed for home consumption; it's not strictly dance music. The Orb, from England, appeared on Top Of The Pops, which helped propel their 1992 release, U.F.Orb, to #1 there. Their work is strongly reminiscent of Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno; frontman Dr. Alex Paterson had worked in the A&R department of EG Records, home of Eno. Unlike their earliest work, U.F.Orb is not beat driven; it is an ambient soundscape in a chill-out mode; "Towers of Dub" is a flowing, semi-free-form number, a good representation of their sound. Eno fans in particular will like this, as would fans of early 70's era Pink Floyd.
5. Tricky: Aftermath iTunes
Tricky started out as a member of the Wild Bunch, a Bristol-based rap group that eventually evolved into trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack. Tricky is the rapper on Massive Attack's influential album Blue Lines, released in 1992. Prior to launching his solo career, he met teenaged vocalist Martina (Martina Topley-Bird), who became his full-time collaborator. "Aftermath" was his first solo outing, and features Martina's rich bluesy soul vocal over a slow, dope drums 'n' bass groove with Tricky's buzzed, laid back rap, and eerie atmospheric electronic flourishes.
6. The Prodigy: Firestarter
The Prodigy struck an uncomfortable balance between being electronica artists, which for the most part, requires keeping a low profile (clubs are dark, after all), and being pop stars, which requires bigger than life posturing. This notoriety was due to the remarkable success of their singles, twelve of which had made the British top-20 before their world-wide breakout with The Fat of the Land in 1997. "Firestarter" was one of their two #1 singles in England; it features hip-hop influenced beats, brilliant samples, and shouted, nonsensical vocals from Keith Flint and Maxim.
7. Underworld: Born Slippy iTunes
Underworld is arguably the most essential 1990's electronica unit. Vocalist Karl Hyde and guitarist Rick Smith had been recording together since the mid-80's; on their third album as Underworld, they introduced deejay Darren Emerson, which made all the difference. Their essential sound was raspy, throaty vocals from Hyde, with bluesy guitar shreds from Smith, melded to breakbeat trance. "Born Slippy" provided their big breakthrough, after it was featured in the film Trainspotting. Its big opening chords are already classic, as is the "lager, lager, lager" chant; it is an anthem to hedonism.
8. Massive Attack: Daydreaming iTunes
Massive Attack are among the pioneers of the trip-hop subgenre, melding soulful melodies, dub grooves, samples, and hip-hop rhythms into a sensual, evocative, cinematic new style of music. Their history dates as far back as 1983, when the rap group/DJ collective the Wild Bunch was formed. This group evolved into Massive Attack, which released its first single, "Daydreaming" in 1990. The song features Shara Nelson's sensual vocals and raps from Tricky, and established their new direction. Tricky would leave them in 1993 and embark on a successful and influential career of his own. Massive Attack's biggest commercial success came in 1998 with Mezzanine, which features the classic "Inertia Creeps".
9. DJ Shadow: In/Flux
DJ Shadow's Josh Davis, from Hayward, CA, gets credit for establishing the experimental instrumental hip-hop style associated with Mo' Wax records; he first gained wide notice for a 17-minute hip-hop symphony called "Entropy" in 1993. "In/Flux", a 1993 single, originally appeared on a Mo' Wax 1994 sampler, Headz, but didn't appear on a DJ Shadow album until 1998, on the singles collection Preemptive Strike. It progresses from a kinetic, busy opening through up-tempo funky breakbeats and stoned, downbeat hip-hop.
10. Mouse On Mars: Twift Shoeblade iTunes
Mouse on Mars is a German post-techno duo whose work touches on ambient, techno, and dub, rock, jazz, and jungle. Formed by Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner in 1993, their debut single, "Frosch", appeared the following year. "Twift Shoeblade" is the standout cut from their 1997 effort, Autoditacker, which sees their essential kraut-rock and dub influences evolving into long, downtempo ambient music, with some occasional drums 'n' bass. Their sound is noteworthy for its intricacy and density; unlike some of the other tracks included here, Modest Mouse isn't spare; their music is densely packed with rhythms, keyboards, and assorted electronic effects.
Listen to Massive Attack: Daydreaming (1990)