Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The 20 Best Electronic Albums of the 90s (10-6)

10. The Future Sound of London - Lifeforms (1994)
Back when I was just getting into electronic music and had bought FSOL's Accelerator I wasn't so much into Lifeforms. It's just an entirely different sound. I imagine most people who have ever liked FSOL began liking them because of "We Are Explosive" or "Papua New Guinea," their big club hits, but coming back to Lifeforms so many years later, the critics were right. Earlier FSOL works sound positively trite by comparison, and the duo themselves has reportedly denounced their pre-Lifeforms work as merely an avenue to make ends meet financially. The album itself is a sprawling tide pool of sounds and noises. It's truly a transporting experience to listen to this album, like it's your soundtrack as you explore a vast, submerged cavern full of precious crystals and deep-sea creatures. I don't know how to explain it without sounding like a new wave/hippie cliche, but maybe that's where the electronic sound sources come in and help out. Like Aphex Twin's album (see #11), Lifeforms uses electronic instruments to create sounds that are either entirely new, or that one would never think a machine could produce. It's continuously enchanting.

Standout Tracks: "Cascade," "Lifeforms"

9. Portishead - Dummy (1994)
I don't claim to know the history of trip-hop, but Portishead is as good as it gets (at least until I post my top 5). There's not much to criticize here. The beats, sampling, and scratching are all amazing and Beth Gibbons' vocals are the perfect compliment. The whole vibe of the album is downtrodden and angsty, but instead of a rebel yell, Gibbons offers a jazzy serenade. The tone of her voice is both strong and compassionate as she sings lyrics that are at times heart-wrenching. And good lord, I know I mentioned the beats already, but seriously, listen to those things. They're incredible all on their own. It's seems that new Portishead material may be on the way for the first time in 10+, which is very exciting. Beatmeaster Geoff Barrow commented recently on the difficulties of following up on two fantastic, critically heralded LPs saying (in paraphrase) "I don't know how we'll make another 'Glory Box.' Thank fuck we already made it." Yes, we're all thanking fuck for that.

Standout Tracks: "Mysterons," "Sour Times," "Numb," "Glory Box"

8. Air - Moon Safari (1998)
Is it possible to dislike this album? I'm not convinced that it is. The melodies are too soothing, the vocals too lovely, the instrumentation too diverse, and the bass too sensuous. Is Moon Safari unintentionally part of a plan for world peace? Debatable, but if you're a member of the camp that thinks people would stop fighting if everyone started getting it on, Moon Safari should be a key component in your nuclear arsenal. Aside from its infamy as one of the ultimate make-out albums, Moon Safari is a pop music triumph, doing for spacey dream-pop what Basement Jaxx did for house. It's not overtly electronic either, but rather usually modifies traditional instruments slightly, warping their sound just enough to create an aura of out-worldliness. I have a bit of a fascination with artists who themselves have a fascination with outer space. It's the whole idea of realizing that there's this great expanse that you'll likely never visit. Moon Safari is a record about longing, with respect to a number of issues, but longing that seems infinitely relatable.

Standout Tracks: "La Femme d'Argent," "Ce Matin La," "Kelly Watch the Stars"

7. Underworld - Second Toughest in the Infants (1996)
Underworld is one of those bands that really made me wish I lived in the UK during the 90s. I was so envious of the rave scene and their giant outdoor festivals. Especially when the only thing we had going here was Woodstock '99 (Woodstock 2 did have a rather nice electronic music billing though). I'm sure most "best of" lists will select Underworld's debut LP over this, their sophomore effort, but that's merely a vote in favor of cultural impact and significance. STotI takes what they started when DJ Darren Emerson joined the group and made it arguably flawless. The deep moody beats are still there, but they push their sound more into progressive house and breakbeat territory here, shedding a bit of their dancey-guitar sound. Karl Hyde still provides vocals, but he has few, if any, legitimate singer-songs here. The vocal focus instead is on surreal wordplay and heavy filtering, melding the lyrics into the whole sound and eliminating the notion that Underworld has a frontman. The opening two tracks were a frequent soundtrack for my drive to high school as together they totaled just over a half hour, and on a decent traffic day I could get there before the stereo struck 3. That's just it though, STotI offers a whole range of sounds in one excellently produced package. Perfect for listening in the morning, afternoon, and night.

Standout Tracks: "Juanita/Kiteless," "Banstyle/Sappys Curry," "Pearls Girl"

6. Boards of Canada - Music has the Right to Children (1998)
No album yet on this list (and even for a couple still to come) has dominated my music listening time for as long as MhtRtC has. I listened to pretty much nothing else for at least 2 months and heard at least part of this album almost everyday within that span. Like Air, Boards of Canada seem infinitely likable. Though BoC aren't as cheeky or French-sounding there's an overriding sense of accessibility to their music. Play this album for anyone during a group study-session or whatever, and you'll hear no objections unless they're weirded out by a couple of the vocal samples. The album's beats are a fusion of hip-hop, downtempo, and any other of a number of subgenres. The album's atmosphere is spacey and soothing, which sounds like it contrasts with it being beat-heavy at times, but it all works out somehow. This is definitely one of the more timeless albums that I own as it's not tied down to a specific movement. The cover art seems to be an altered photo from the 70s, but who's to say for sure. I just have a feeling that I'll be listening to this album years in the future and it won't be because I'm feeling nostalgic.

Standout Tracks: "An Eagle in your Mind," "Sixtyten," "ROYGBIV"

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