5. Daft Punk - Homework (1997)
It's hard to believe Daft Punk used to be as low key a duo as they were back in the 90s. Sure they'd hide their faces with masks, but their personas weren't ingrained into them until they were transformed into robots in the new millennium (it was a freak accident in the studio, if you didn't know). Homework is extremely simple and repetitive yet somehow very intense and funky. In fact, everything about this album is low-key down to the Spike Jonze-directed music videos that feature dialogue over the music. Then there's also Michel Gondry's video for "Around the World" which has quite the high rank in it's respective canon. This album has Daft Punk sounding their most like French house producers, building off of extremely catchy, groovy basslines and beats, and simply repeating them with subtle variation and the occasional noisy build-up. It's a landmark piece of work from a band that has become one of the great pop groups of our generation.
Standout Tracks: "Da Funk," "Revolution 909," "Around the World"
4. Chemical Brothers - Dig Your Own Hole (1997)
Electronica's big-beat titans, the Chemical Brothers, make arena rock albums as much as they make techno. They draw influences from so many places it's hard to keep track of, but honestly, why bother. Dig Your Own Hole was never meant to be analyzed, it's meant for movement; be that dancing, speeding down a highway, or just rocking out. If there's one good word to describe it, it's "kinetic." The bass in "Block Rockin' Beats" and "Elektrobank" sound like an air raid, and the swirling sirens of "Setting Sun" and "The Private Psychedelic Reel" spiral out in every direction. These songs were constructed with raves and festivals in mind, as they seem to be the only venues capable of hosting a sound of this scope and magnitude. The Chems have a lot of crossover appeal, and the hope was that they'd catch on over here in the States and finally bring electronic music into our mainstream. Of course this was a failure as electronic music has remained a niche underground fascination over here, but there are definitely rock-oriented Americans who cite this album very highly on their best-of lists, and I think that counts for something.
Standout Tracks: "Block Rockin' Beats," "Elektrobank," "Setting Sun," "The Private Psychedelic Reel"
3. Prodigy - Music for the Jilted Generation (1995)
The Prodigy was my perfect transition from rock music into electronic music. The power chords are more evident on The Fat of the Land, but they still had begun to show their faces back on MftJG. I actually find it a little strange that with all the hype about Justice, with their dance-rock sound and how it sound is inspired by Daft Punk, that The Prodigy never gets mentioned. Go figure. Somehow I doubt that Liam Howlett and company would really care at all. MftJG is a visceral album from start to finish. It seems that the band really wants to make you feel like you're on all sorts of crazy substances as you're listening, going so far as to dub the final three tracks "The Narcotic Suite" which sound as tripped out as the name implies; going from pleasant, tropical buzz to full-on hallucinatory, baby-wailing, spastic freak-out. The whole album is deliciously dark, and the kind of thing that provides a devious pleasure when you listen to it. Oh and "Voodoo People" and "No Good (Start the Dance)" are two of the best dance tracks I have ever heard. Period. There's a lot to like here in general, and it's a shame that (at least here in the States) this album always seems to sit in the shadow of its follow-up when this thing is so amazing in its own right.
Standout Tracks: "Break & Enter," "Their Law," "Voodoo People," "No Good (Start the Dance)"
2. DJ Shadow - ...Endtroducing (1996)
Shadow's debut album still sounds fantastic today, 10+ years later. It's still the ultimate statement of sampling prowess. Its only contender is Since I Left You by the Avalanches, but that album came out in 2001, so as far as this list goes, Shadow wins uncontested. ...Endtroducing is basically one giant string of samples sprawling from one track into the next, and they're all sorts of samples from all sorts of genres of music, spoken word pieces, and news snippets. The result is an album that conveys the experience of listening to vinyl records, even if it's recorded on CD. And even with this vintage aesthetic, there are some pretty hardcore hip-hop beats that really drive the songs forward and make them uncannily replayable. The musical historians out there will try and pick apart everything about this album, but for the general music-lover there's nothing really to dislike here, and so there's enjoyment to be had no matter how deep you choose to dig. Many cite this album as the arbiter of trip-hop; an arguable genre classification. The truth is, in whatever genre you choose to place ...Endtrodcing, it's probably the best album in there.
Standout Tracks: Uh, tracks? That's missing the point.
1. Orbital - Orbital 2 (1992)
I don't really even know where to start here. Orbital's second album is everything I've ever wanted an album of music to be, electronic or otherwise. The tracks are elaborate, beat-driven compositions that convey pictures and feelings in a more effective way than any lyrics-based music has ever done for me. Listening to "Lush 3-1" is like running through a field of tall damp grass at superhuman speed. "Monday" presents the extraordinary in the everyday of beginning another workweek. Every song does something amazing like this. Orbital 2 is a journey through a foreign, often out-worldly landscape. It's part sci-fi, part urban realism, and part imagination-inspiring illusion. I used to play "Halcyon" as I went to sleep, knowing full well that there was no way I was really going to fall asleep during the track (I'd miss all the best parts!). Orbital 2 succeeds on every classic music criticism standby that I can think of: beats, originality, variation, consistency, well-roundedness, you name it. Of course I turn into a bit of a sap nowadays when Orbital comes up in conversation on a part of the band of brothers disbanding a few years ago, but I couldn't be more satisfied with what they managed to accomplish.
Standout Tracks: "Planet of the Shapes," "Lush 3-1," "Impact (The Earth is Burning)," "Remind," "Halcyon + On + On"