The prevailing musical force in modern pop culture is, without question, electronic dance music. It’s the sound that helped propel Taylor Swift from country star to megawatt pop star, put Sam Smith on the map, and inspires thousands of people to descend on Las Vegas every year for the Electric Daisy Carnival. But if you haven’t been following the evolution of the genre from its earliest incarnation in the ‘70s (or if you don’t like your music filled with beeps, boops, and wub wubs), it can be a daunting task to dive into the deep end with the likes of Skrillex, Deadmau5, and TOKiMONSTa. Allow us to offer up a small taster’s menu of electronic delights to help bring you up to speed and get you excited for your own exploration of this exciting and varied world.
Ease yourself into the world of electronic fare with a warm bath of sound created by one of the masters of the form Brian Eno came out of the glam rock era with his dignity relatively intact and went on to help artists from Talking Heads to David Bowie realize their album-length dreams. But in the late ‘70s, he helped embrace the possibilities of “environmental music,” or sounds that work just as well as background noise as they do through close, full-volume listening. His first foray, subtitled Music For Airports, remains a classic of the ambient genre with gently spooling out melodies, created by voice or keyboard, melt into the creases of your brain.
Over the group’s six previous albums, Kraftwerk proved that a band featuring on synthesized instruments could be just as compelling and funky as any rock group. Yet for all the brilliance they achieved before and after their seventh album, The Man-Machine, this was when the quartet hit peak conceptual greatness. The ping-ponging beats, wonderfully incessant melodies, and dry, affectless vocal delivery by leader Ralf Hütter foresaw a world when human and robot commingled to create a glorious new species.
This compilation isn’t a greatest hits album per se, as only one song on Substance cracked the Billboard Top 40 here in the States. But this singles collection still stands as one of the greatest documents of the Manchester quartet’s most fertile period. These dozen tracks follow the former members of Joy Division as they found their way following the 1980 suicide of Ian Curtis and began to fold disco, electro, and hip-hop influences into their already heated guitar/bass/drums attack.
Another quartet from Manchester, 808 State was responsible for bringing acid house to the masses thanks to peerless singles like “Pacific State” and “Cubik.” They also made some great album-length statements during their peak run in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, hitting the apex with this 1991 classic of Morse code techno augmented by spiraling guitar and saxophone lines. It helps that they were savvy enough to welcome a couple of guest artists on board, including New Order frontman Bernard Sumner, and everyone’s favorite Icelander Björk, who contributed vocals to two marvelous tracks here.
Though the Bristol-based collective would hit greater commercial heights later on, their debut is still their best. A perfect late night listen that blends the core trio’s love of dub, hip-hop, and vintage soul and jazz, the highlight of this still-stunning debut is the epic “Unfinished Sympathy,” a five minute explosion of emotion bolstered by a cinematic string section and a steaming hot vocal turn by Shara Nelson. Blue Lines is also responsible for introducing the world to Tricky (he appears on three tracks) and the term “trip-hop.”
In the late ‘90s, following a fight with a life-threatening illness, Ben Watt discovered the joy and elation that was house and drum ‘n’ bass. And by embracing it, he radically upended the sound of the long-running musical project he started with his wife Tracey Thorn a decade earlier. The result is a stark and startling album that lets the warmth of her dulcet soprano and lyrics of getting love, losing love, and the nostalgia of the past seep into the steely, stuttering beats and almost jazzy melodies.
The tracklist for this two-CD collection features names like Depeche Mode, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and Roni Size, but when those eclectic sounds are sent through the filter created by Austrians Richard Dorfmeister and Peter Kruder, they cohere into a cozy down tempo swirl. One of the best mix albums of the ‘90s, this set is infinitely listenable, and perfect for nearly every occasion or function or activity that breaks out with the setting of the sun.
Even if you’ve never heard this album, there’s a good chance you’ve heard many of the songs on it. The proudly bald producer made the unprecedented move of licensing all the tracks on this, his fifth album for ads and movie placements. The carpet-bombing approach worked wonders as it turned Moby into a superstar, and turned this fine album of blues samples, neck-snapping breakbeats, and late night balladry into a double-platinum success. It would be annoying if the record weren’t so damn good.
One of the most instantly recognizable sounds in modern electronic music belongs to this enigmatic Scottish duo. Their fuzzy burbles and glinting synth elements feel like the half-remembered soundtrack to a ‘70s British sci-fi series that you happened upon late one night. Combined with the sharp smack of their very modern drum programming, Boards should leave you reeling with nostalgia and hope for a pleasant tomorrow. Their most recent album Tomorrow’s Harvest adds to the sensation with the sunbaked atmosphere of a vintage Robert Altman film.
Speaking of musical enigmas, the most mysterious figure right now is this dubstep producer from South London. His love of warped vocal samples and the sound of vinyl surface noise have held him in good stead since he arrived on the scene a decade ago, and his work has only grown dustier and more misshapen since. For folks just starting out with Burial, head directly to his second album, a masterwork that brings out the beauty and poignancy of what otherwise feels like the soundtrack to an unforgiving long night of the soul.