This list was brought about by a challenge of sorts (issued here), and I found it difficult to pass up a good chance to make a list and listen to some of my favorite albums once again. I'm writing about electronic albums because that's most of what I know, and I don't know much outside of it (at least not for 90s music). While some of the albums I'm going to list are some of my all-time favorites, I'm selecting them because I think they are the best. There are no guilty pleasures on the list. If it's here, I feel genuinely about it. Alright then, let's get to it.
20. Paul Oakenfold - Tranceport (1998)
There's a reason everyone knew/knows who Paul Oakenfold is, and it's not because he's a great producer (he isn't). It's because he's a great DJ. The man has no doubt received more votes than anyone else in his career for "DJ of the Year" in such-and-such magazine, and is perhaps the first individual to truly embody the term "superstar DJ." The thing is, he lives up to it. His inclusion in this list is not for mere mention of his importance to electronic music, but because his entry into the Tranceport series is truly superb. The mix itself is seamless, recontextualizing the tracks to fit the whole, and the song selection itself remains top-notch, which is certainly helped by frequently queuing up Paul Van Dyk (3 times to be exact)and Gus Gus among other up-and-comers of the time. What more do you want from a dancefloor-ready trance mix? Track selection avoids the super-cheesiness of ATB and his ilk, but we're still talking about trance music here, so it's still going to sound like trance music. Let me put it this way: I like cheese on my pizza, but consider stuffing the crust with it to be taking matters too far. That said, Tranceport is simply delicious.
Standout Tracks: Paul Van Dyk - "Words (For Love)," Gus Gus - "Purple (Sasha v. The Light)"
19. Moby - s/t (1992)
Even more than Oakey, Moby has dealt with his fair share of criticism over his later work. Play may have been his star-vehicle into the lime-light and all it entails, but his self-titled debut is both what got him rolling and where his talent shines through most brightly. You see, back in the day, Moby used to make dance music. With the rave movement taking over in the UK, Moby was just about the strongest liaison we had here in the US to that cultural phenomenon. Here it was the underground though, and that's what Moby sounds like. The album is rather dark at times, channeling the urgency of squeezing in one more song before the cops bust up the entire scene. Sirens may abound, but Moby also takes considerable time to innovate here, creating his trademark gospel-infused dance-balladry on "Go" and experimenting with after-party chillout vibes to close the album. You can't blame the guy for wanting to move in new directions as his career expanded, but that doesn't mean the old Moby won't be missed.
Standout Tracks: "Go," "Drop A Beat"
18. Fatboy Slim - You've Come A Long Way Baby (1998)
Norman Cook's second proper LP as Fatboy Slim is just about the only album on this list to receive surmountable airplay on American radio. It's a credit to the accessibility and eclecticness of the record which approaches the big beat sound from so many different angles and somehow holds the whole thing together in a solid package. There really is something for everyone here, just name a genre and I guarantee there's at least a sample derived from it. The album never takes itself too seriously, and at times is just plain silly, but the fun, anything-goes feel is the glue that's holding everything together. I often dismiss Fatboy Slim for these very reasons, but when I put this record on again it's impossible to resist. Besides, it's nice when someone actually recognizes a song that I like rather than me having to explain why song x isn't actually techno, but rather blahblahblah....
Standout Tracks: "The Rockafeller Shank," "Praise You"
17. Sasha + John Digweed - Northern Exposure: Expeditions (1999)In this, the 4th and final entry in S+D's Northern Exposure series, the DJ heavyweights finally seem to set out what they wanted to accomplish with it: create epic, organic soundscapes grounded in progressive house and trance beats. While it's not the be-all end-all of organic electronica, it may be the best of its genre. Song selection and mixing is impeccably tight, containing a cheesiness factor near zero. The songs on display here aren't club anthems either, making the mix as suited for the dancefloor as for bedroom listening. Spanning over two hours, this double-disc set is inherently expansive, perfectly fitting in with the tone of the mix. It's rarely in a rush to get somewhere and, on the contrary, is an album that supports the importance of the ride rather than the destination. Sasha may still be a huge name DJ (winning Essential Mix of the year two years ago, and pioneering an all digital DJ setup), and Digweed as well (recently teaming up with MSTRKRFT for a giant tour), but I'd love to see what a reunited force could produce nowadays, seeing as how they pretty much reached trance/prog house perfection with Expeditions.
Standout Tracks: Tyrantic - "Breeder," Sasha - "Belfunk"
16. The Orb - Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (1991)
I'll be honest, I'm actually quite new to the Orb and haven't given this album as many full listens as I'd have liked to, but I have already been able to tell that there's something special here. This is ambient music that's actually interesting. Plus, some of the sampling techniques are incredibly fresh, like throwing in Minnie Riperton's "Loving You" throughout a 19 minute, largely instrumental meditation on space. Maybe I'm just so amazed by it because I've never really heard anything else like it, but that sort of thing happens when a band is touted as worthy of their own new genre; in this case it's ambient house. Now, the album isn't entirely floaty space-scapes, there are occasional beats thrown in but don't strain too hard to find the 4/4 measures as they're few and far between. The Orb have an incredible knack for songcraft, and as such, you'll never feel like the band is just sitting back and blindly stroking synth chords. It's an incredibly refreshing listen considering the current trends in electronic music.
Standout Tracks: "Little Fluffy Clouds," "A Huge Ever-Growing Pulsating Brain that Rules from the Center of the Ultraworld"