An introduction & guide to Electronic Dance Music. I’ll try to show you the hidden gems of and the abstract expressionism that is electronic music.
What makes electronic music stand out amongst the million and one genres and sub genres of music that already exist? What can it do that music belonging to humankind’s rich musical tradition stretching back thousands of years cannot? Why use synthesizers instead of instruments, substituting digital signals for the analog feel, substituting the uncertain delicacy of our fingers for the pitch perfect accuracy of a computer. There are very good reasons for this shift in the methods of composition and there is much to be gained. Read on and find out.
For the music theorists around us, the theoretical and aesthetical underpinnings of Electronic Dance Music (EDM) were laid down in the context of Musique Concrete among other forms. Electronic music literally means music created through the use of electrical signals to represent sound. In this sense, all popular music is electronic, because it’s created in studios. Besides all albums, however recorded, go through mastering in studios and are influenced by the electronic music process. I’m not going to go on pendantically describing EDM’s evolution because firstly there are enough webpages out there doing that, and secondly, EDM is a very splintered subset of music. It’s extremely hard to form a linear, coherent narrative out of it I feel. There are all these movements everywhere, with lots of cross fertilisation and innovation going on simultaneously, that to understand EDM you might as well skip to the …
… music! Instead of dividing EDM up into genres as Ishkur does I’m going to order it by the music’s complexity, experimentalism and how hard it is to appreciate. If you want to know how everything fits in, Ishkur is good for that. So the tracks are ordered from easiest to listen to, to the hardest to appreciate. Why this, might you ask? Is it not more logical to order by genre? Well, no, ordering by genre involves adequately fleshing out a genre and there’s really no end to that. Ordering by difficulty allows me to ease you into EDM and throw a smorgasbord of interesting tracks into your path, which hopefully will pique your interest and demonstrate the diversity of electronic music. And most importantly remember that EDM is very social, you will only really feel it at a party with a ton of happy, delirious people around. That’s where it’s meant to be heard, nay felt!
Anyhow I feel all EDM has a common aim, to express what cannot be expressed though traditional music. Whatever…just listen! Oh and if you are familiar with any kind of experimental/offbeat music you might want to skip the first few tracks.
Donna Summer – I Feel Love (Proto-House) 1978
Yup this is how EDM started. Barely distinguishable from Disco, with the mildest electronic overtones. Do you feel the Love?
Guru Josh Project – Infinity 2008 (Klaas Remix) (House) 2008
This track has a truly memorable hook. You’ve probably heard it on the radio sometime. It’s the right balance of mass appeal and good music.
Shpongle – Star Shpongled Banner (Psychedelic Ambient) 1998
Simon Posford kickstarted the entire psychedelic ambient genre with his album Are you Sphongled? under his Shpongle project. An album that is as close to a universal hit as trance will ever get. Everyone loves this, and with good reason =]
Crystal Method feat. Matisyahu – Drown in the Now (Trip-Hop) 2009
Crystal Method were the most famous exponents of the mid-90s “Big-Beat” sound on the West side of the Atlantic. (Big Beat music is most easily explained as the stuff they play in action movies). In this album, they moved towards trip-hop/electro grooves and this track is a result of that. The tracks has trance-ey synths humming along in the background, perfectly complementing Matisyahu’s voice.
Example – Changed the Way You Kiss Me (Mensah Remix) (Dubstep) 2011
Chilled out song, makes for good listening anytime.
Robert Miles – Children (Dream Version) (Trance) 1996
Robert Miles’ famous track. It is a little cheesy I admit, but it’s not bad. Good track to start exploring trance with.
The Orb – Little Fluffy Clouds (Ambient House) 1990
“They went on for ever and when we lived in Arizona and the skies always had little fluffy clouds and .. they were long and clear and there were lots of stars, at night. And when it would rain it would all turn, it, they were beautiful, the most beautiful skies as a matter of fact, the sunsets were purple and red and yellow and on fire and the clouds would catch the colours everywhere, thats, its neat because I used to look at them all the time when I was little. You don’t see that.”
The Chemical Brothers – The Golden Path (Big Beat) 2003
I’m going to top this off with something a little offbeat. This is a rather dreamy big beat track from the famous British project, The Chemical Brothers.
Well that’s the end of the more easily appreciated tracks. If you found it even remotely interesting and informative, that’s great! If you liked any of the tracks, I recommend exploring those albums. I dislike how the focus has shifted from albums to singles now. Often the artists put the album together as a work, and each track is part of a whole. And if you want similar recommendations for a track you liked, post and I’ll give you some.
Moving onto more varied music…
iTAL tEK – Wind Tunnel (Dubstep) 2009
Most dubstep is designed for the dance floor, but this ‘un’s fairly intelligent fare ;)
Royksopp – A Beautiful Day Without You (Progressive Trance) 2006
What’s notable about this track, is that the vocals aren’t the focus; they’re treated as just another layer in the track, that goes with all the other layers to create something gestalt. This track is like rowing down a glassy river.
Androcell – Dub Crickets (Psychedelic Dub) 2002
In a similar vein to the Shpongle track, this goes down the dub path. Deep, calming bass, and meditative Indian vocals. Beautiful.
Chemical Brothers – Leave Home (Big Beat) 1995
Time for something a little more uptempo. A faithful Chemical Brothers track, this will give you an idea of what their sounds is like.
Ziki vs Sesto Sento – Trance N Roll (Psychedelic Trance) 2007
More uptempo music. True, this track pulls out all the formulas, but the final product is a happy, uplifting-but-not-cheesy trance track.
Galaxy 2 Galaxy – Hi-Tech Jazz (Detroit Jazz) 1993
Warm, ambient jazzy techno from Detroit. I love the sax on this one. The perfect example of how the up and coming EDM disco scene mingled with black music to produce techno.
Rune – Calabria (Euro/Ibiza House) 2003
Listen to this and you feel like you’re watching the sunset on a Mediterranean beach. That horn melody….
PFM – Western (with MC Conrad) (Intelligent Drum & Bass [IDB]) 1996
This is not the original, but the version with MC Conrad rapping on it. From LTJ Bukem’s famous Logical Progression Vol.1 release. This is my favourite MC+producer combination in D&B.
Lützenkirchen – Music for the Girls (Huggotron Remix) (Electro-House) 2007
This is probably my favourite electro house track. Nice touches all around, very smooth and crisp.
Now you’ve dipped your toes in the sea of acoustic soundscapes. You are broadly familiar with how EDM sounds. Well real EDM awaits! Jump in jump in!
Second Phase – Mind to Mind (Techno) 1992
Simple but beautiful melodic techno from the early 90s. Joey Beltram, one of the techno giants, collaborated on this.
The Prodigy – Voodoo People (Big Beat) 1994
It’s time you heard some Prodigy! With the Chemical Brothers they are the face of Big Beat. This is some track. Magic people, voodoo people!
Malpractice – Don’t Hold Me Down (Body & Soul Remix) (Drum & Bass) 2008
I like this track because it perfectly exemplifies how rock and D&B can come together. If you like this check out the rest of the Stadium Drum & Bass compilation.
Infected Mushroom – Never Ever Land (Psychedelic Trance) 2001
IM is the most popular psychedelic trance project. Their initial albums rode the crest of the melodic, mellow Israeli sound emerging around 2000, but their popularity lead them onto to more commercial ventures. Leaving us only with tracks like this one from their early works to appreciate.
Humanoid – Stakker Humanoid (Acid House) 1988
I’ve somehow managed to refrain from introducing y’all to my favourite EDM sound, but here it is! It’s called ‘acid’ and it’s a sound that is entirely due to the Roland TB303 hardware synthesizer. This is an awesome acid house track from way back in ‘88. Yummy.
Balil – Parasight (IDM/Trance) 1994
From the seminal release Artificial Intelligence II. AI I&II were the genesis of the Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) genre. From the release, I prefer this track even over Autechre’s work.
Orbital – Halcyon + On + On (Techno) 1993
Pure emotion. Orbital is one of the most well-known and respected British techno acts from the 90s.
DJ Smokey Joe – Boomzabang (Rave Hardcore) 1993
In age where the word ‘rave’ is thrown around with reckless, feckless abandon and can mean anything to the average person from…well actually it has ceased to mean anything…here you have a _real_ rave track which was probably played numerous times along the M25 in the 90s :p It has all the staples – a completely random vocal sample, hoovers and furious breakbeats.
Second Phase – Mentasm (Techno) 1992
The only EP which has both tracks on this list. You heard “Mind to Mind” earlier on, and this is the second track – Mentasm. It immortalized the thick, viscous, screeching, distorted howl known as the “Hoover”,
The Flashbulb – Kirlian Shores (Breakcore) 2005
I feel compelled to add in a breakcore track. So here’s your (albeit gentle) introduction to breakcore! From the highly respected Kirlian Selections album.
Astral Projection – Mahadeva (Goa Trance) 1995
Finally! I did mention my favourite sound in EDM is acid. Well, ladies and gentlemen, Goa Trance is the most blessed, and most precocious, and most revered manifestation of said sound. Discovered on the beaches of Goa by itinerant hippies, this sound will send your mind into orbit. At once both profound and uplifting, this is my favourite EDM genre by light years. Listen!
Now I can finally start showing you the real stuff! *rubs hands in glee* Real music, which strips down music to its elements and throws them together in entirely new ways, pushes the boundaries of sound and composition, innovates with new structural elements, and generally is awesome. Though I warn you, the rest of the music that follows will not be to most folks’ taste.
Venetian Snares – Integraation (Classical Breakcore) 2007
Ok classical breakcore means breakcore overlaid with classical music. Trust me, you don’t think it would go, but it most certainly does! Amazing.
Squarepusher – Fat Controller (Breakcore) 1997
Time you heard Squarepusher. As far as my knowledge goes, he’s behind much of Breakcore, influencing projects like Venetian Snares and The Flashbulb.
DJ Misjah & Groovehead – Trippin’ Out (Rave/Trance) 1994
Generous dollops of acid well blended with rave and trance melodies to create this monster acid rave choon!
Aphex Twin – Heliosphan (Techno) 1992
Ofcourse no guide to EDM can be complete without techno, and techno is not complete without mentioning Richard D James, whose most well known moniker is Aphex Twin.
Evol Intent – The Oscine’s Lament (Drum & Bass) 2008
Yesss!! From the greatest Drum & Bass album to have graced thine flesh antenna :p Era of Diversion is easily the best D&B album I’ve heard. I invite you to give the entire album a listen and guarantee you’ll be spellbound.
Black Sun Empire – Breach (Drum & Bass) 2004
My favourite D&B track. Nothing to say. Stop looking at this and listen to it.
Bong Ra & End.User – Horns (Hardcore) 2007
This is the first hard track I’m dropping on here, so yeah it could be a little too much to take, but hardcore/industrial is something else altogether.
Frontline Assembly – Backlash (Industrial) 2001
Pretty cool track. To give you an idea of what goes on in industrial music. FLA is huge there.
The following tracks are for folks who know more about music than I do :p If that’s you, there’s really no reason for you to listen to me but I hope I can pull some rabbits out of the EDM hat which might make you sit up and pay attention and pique that interest a little. The music in this section takes it all the way, I warn you.
Speedy J – Manhasset (Techno) 2000
Techno. Profound. Aesthetic. Meditative. Mournful. Nostalgic. Weighty. Unfathomable. Mysterious. Enveloping. Indescribable. Ineffable. Speedy J is Jochem Paap, another techno giant.
Plastikman – Plasticine (Acid Techno) 1993
The best acid techno track ever? Possibly. I don’t know how Richie Hawtin came up with the synths and composition on this one. Richie Hawtin is mentioned in the same breath as Richard D. James and Joey Beltram with good reason.
Plastikman – Spastik (Minimal Techno) 1993
And here were have the beginnings of minimal techno courtesy Richie Hawtin again. Very hard to appreciate though.
Aphex Twin – Monkey Drummer (Techno) 2003
Comes with a strangely creepy video.
Autechre – Gantz Graf (Intelligent Dance Music [IDM]) 2002
The legendary Autechre. Seldom is it that one project defines an entire genre, but for many, Autechre defines IDM. What a track this is. And that video on top of it.
Furious – Powered Psidm (Dark Psychedelic Trance) 2007
I think it’s safe to say this track takes psytrance all the way. Incredible, meticulous, minute attention to detail and use of all possible acoustic space make this quite something.
Pleiadians – Maïa (Oldskool Goa Trance) 1997
The album universally praised as nadir of Goa Trance, Identified Flying Object, and Maia that track that peaks on it. Though it makes no sense pulling out one track from that album, it’s required listening as a whole.
Har-el Prussky – Sleepwalker (Oldskool Goa Trance) 1995
This track sounds like it’s from 3000 A.D. With those samples from the film Scanner, and the sci-fi synthwork, outwordly and ethereal sounds, this is one of the most futuristic tracks I’ve heard, and it was made in ‘95.
Koxbox – Doktor Mesmer (Psychedelic Trance) 1997
I really do not know how to describe this track. Listen to it and let it seep into you. Psychedelia does not get better. Every layer in this track is perfect, I don’t think there is any way this track can ever be improved. Mesmerizing.
Vector Burn – Orchid (Mav Remix) (Intelligent Drum & Bass) 2003
Drum & Bass seems to have a particular knack for getting sparse, dreamy atmospheres dead right. This track mayn’t be as strong as the other tracks in this section, but it holds up well.
Deviant Electronics – Babelfish (Ambient Psychedelic Drum & Bass) 2000
Somehow the broken beats just add to the ambience, like ripples slowing spreading out over an infinity pool.
Aphex Twin – Didgeridoo (Tribal Techno)
Ever felt you’re in the Australian Outback? Look at the way claps are used in this track. Combined with the didgeridoo, quite entrancing.
Kraftwelt – Slipsteam (Electronic) 1998
I’ll leave you with this gem from Kraftwelt. They must be one of the most under-rated electronic projects of all time. I love their music because this is electronic music that doesn’t try to “be anything”. It isn’t trying to make you trip, to make you dance, to overwhelm you or to make you relax. It simply is.
Well there you go. That’s the end of the introduction. Congratulations, now you’ve just had an extremely patchy introduction to EDM which has nonetheless allowed you to extend a finger into every kind of pie on offer. If you liked what you heard, rest assured this is only the beginning of a long and very rewarding journey. More recommendations can be found by perusing my lists of electronic music or indeed any of the other excellent lists on this site.