Posts from December 1999
So what happened in the 1990s? Trying to put a lassoo round a decade is difficult and dumb, and never more so than now, when all the critics seem to be talking about ‘fragmentation’. The best way to read ten years’ worth of entrails, I thought, was to come at it sideways, single by single, and hope that some kind of picture built up. Did it? You be the judge.
Why singles, though? Because everyone else was doing albums, because we listen to music one track at a time anyway, because so much of the decade’s most vital music never even surfaced on LP. Album-based rock criticism has its own rhetoric, mostly concerned about whether a record will last and where it stands in relation to the established critical pantheon. I don’t care about whether these records will last – why try to second-guess the future? For me, now, this is the music that mattered.
Low’s Christmas tree is a simple one, with eight plain wooden baubles. The band write four tracks themselves, offer interpretations of two carols and crooners’ favourite “Blue Christmas”, and nobody’s bothered to take credit for “Taking Down The Tree” (but it sounds like one of Low’s own). The record is packaged – beautifully – like a very plain, precious card, steeped in a quiet sense of occasion. Low have won half the battle before you’ve even unsleeved the CD.
Certain strands of Alternative music and certain strands of post-Reformation Christianity have in common an occasional appreciation for starkness, and a reflexive distaste for vulgar and worldly ornament. Low, with their professed Mormon faith and the slow, stern but compassionate guitar music they make, bring the strands together, which explains why they’ve become the Christian Rock it’s OK to like.
Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s
Why? Because I still believe in the pop single as a public event, and “Common People” was on every station, every channel, every show in Summer 1995, and because it was wonderful each time you heard it, the one glorious, undeniable surprise of that year, of Britpop. The only unpredictable things about Britpop were the scale of it all, and Pulp – Lord knows all the other records had been made before. Actually, you could easily have seen Britpop coming. Once the Americans had shown people how to market college music to everybody else, once the industry realised how stubbornly difficult it was to sell dance to people who weren’t dancers, once British indie had given up all that silly cutting-edge nonsense, well then, something big was inevitable.
So we got Britpop, and everything you read about it was true – almost. It was a ridiculous, exciting time; it did turn up a lot of wonderful characters and made the tabloid pop pages a better place; it did give British guitar pop a distinctive identity; it did help change the country, or at least the prosperous metropolitan bits of it. Britpop also called my kind of people’s bluff – this was what we’d all wanted, wasn’t it? Our music in the charts, even battling it out for Number One on News At Ten – fantastic! Except, of course, for the fact that the records that were suddenly exploding all over the country weren’t all that interesting, and some of them were plain horrible.
Yes, we were elitists, and bitter elitists at that. We’d grown up on indie, we’d flown the flag for Morrissey and Brett and Saint Etienne, we’d fooled ourselves that what the charts needed was ‘glamour’ or ‘style’ (albeit hackneyed ideas of both) when what the charts wanted were beery music-hall romps and teary guitar ballads. But when “Common People” burnt a hole in the countdown at No.2 and stuck there it redeemed us and Britpop both at once – all it took was that one sainted record to make all the hype and bluster worth it.
At the tail end of that summer, I went to a wedding, and the DJ, being not unfamiliar with the Top 40, played Pulp’s big hit. The first two verses of “Common People” are a fuse, too slow for dancing unless you know what’s coming, and everyone shuffled for a while and then crept off the dancefloor. When the song ignited, we were the only people left, and it was beautiful. Halfway through the DJ shoved “Roll With It” on instead and the floor filled up quickly enough.
The point? That raging, clever songs like “Common People” don’t fit anywhere easily, even after they’ve conquered the radios and shops. The moment you heard the record you knew it was going to be stupefyingly huge, but you also knew that it would not be a music for other people to rip off. I can’t think – even after Pulp have sold millions of records – of more than one band who’ve tried to sound like them in the slightest degree. Was it simply that “Common People”, inevitable anthem though it was, is too radical, too far away in mood from Britpop’s good-time shenanigans and in music from its blocky. tried-and-true guitar moves?
(A sidenote: the band “Common People” feels most like isn’t even Roxy Music, it’s Carter USM in overdriven agit-pop mode. That’s not meant to put you off, just to underline how astonishing the creative and commercial success of the song is.)
But of course on one level isn’t “Common People” completely bogus? It’s a song of disgust about a girl who romanticises the working class which proceeds to go on about how they “burn so bright whilst you can only wonder why”. Right. Saying the poor are innately noble is just the other side of the coin from saying the poor are innately stupid. So that gnawed at me for a while – except I was wrong, and that’s not what Cocker’s singing about. All the overtly romantic stuff in “Common People” – a song which plays with perspective more cleverly than any No.2 hit can be expected to – is, directly or indirectly, the girl’s point of view. Jarvis never even says that he’s one of the ‘Common People’. What he’s singing about ultimately is the irreducibility of personal experience, the impossibility of understanding – let alone packaging – what you haven’t lived: “Everybody hates a tourist”. Which is just as arguable but somehow more sympathetic in a decade where selling pop has more than ever been about niche marketing, a decade which made tourists of us all.
(I might just be thinking this because I’m a middle class parasite who feels guilty for wanting to jump like a fool every time “Common People” comes on. But that after five years this song makes some part of me wriggle and make excuses is in itself testimony that some deep, difficult note is being struck by the track.)
Britpop, of course, was all about class anyway: not any real class system, nothing that related to how people actually lived, but the pantomime version of class that keeps British culture holed somewhere below its psychic waterline. Bluff northern lads against pretentious southern toffs, the forever ‘down-to-earth’ working class versus the inevitably ‘arty’ bourgeois. “Common People”, whatever its flaws, was the only Britpop song exciting enough not to be dragged down by that tiresome, endless discourse, and the only one intelligent enough to say something direct and new about it too.
Listened to in the context of Different Class-era Pulp, “Common People” takes its place as part of a general, misanthropic counterblast against the whole mess of British life. Jarvis’ sympathies may broadly lie with the common people, but any notion that he’d play kitchen-sink romantic would be disabused by a quick listen to “Mile End”‘s horrifying, mordant portrait of tower-block living. All he hates is stupidity, which sadly seems to be institutional. “It’s the angriest song of the decade”, said one Freaky Trigger writer when I told him “Common People” would be heading my list.
It is, it really is, but I also picked it to end on a positive note. And that’s where the music comes in: “Common People” is Pulp’s masterpiece, not just Jarvis’. The music – new-wave keyboards, steamroller drumming, fuzzed-up glam licks – builds from wry kit-built pop, which we knew Pulp could do, to a righteous tower of noisy colour, which we didn’t. Layer after layer of singleminded instrumentation, the tempo shifting gradually up, and Jarvis preaching over the top. And then, in that worldbeating moment when the metronome drum pattern finally breaks into a series of machine-gun fills, it turns into the best party British music ever heard. When Cocker yells, “You will NEVER understand!”, fury and euphoria turn out to be one and the same – which has been pop’s lesson for fifty years, but can stand the repetition.
I haven’t talked about Jarvis’ delivery, or the casually perfect opening couplet, or the Glastonbury performance, or most of the little musical touches that keep me coming back to “Common People” when I’m not in a Cocker mood. I haven’t even done the big personal context thing, which might well be a relief. I haven’t because I don’t need to: there’s no longer any contest. “Common People”, the kind of untouchable record that only comes along once in a generation, is the single of the 90s.
Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles OF The 90s
Between 1992 and 1994, Disco Inferno put out probably the most remarkable and innovative string of singles since Pere Ubu’s initial 1975 releases, singles which in ten or fifteen years’ time will seem as precious and unprecedented as Ubu’s first few do now. This was the best of them.
Like a lot of the finest ideas, Disco Inferno’s was quite simple. Sampler technology had changed the game-plan of pop utterly: every possible sound, from a symphony orchestra to the crunch of feet in snow, could now be claimed, used, treated and twisted in any way you could dream of, cheaply and quickly. But most pop musicians, as if scared by the immensity of this newly possible sound-world, were tinkering away at its edges, confining themselves just to sampling and playing with other people’s records. At the same time, the songwriting revolution set in motion in the 1960s was far from played out: a band set-up still offered unlimited opportunities for direct, lyrical self-expression. If you were like Disco Inferno’s Ian Crause, alive to the potential and need for innovation but also itching to say things, then the never-ending prophecies of the song’s death-by-sampler weren’t exactly helpful.
Disco Inferno had a solution. They kept writing stark, sinewy and sad guitar pop with intelligent, severe lyrics, but to play it they wired their instruments to samplers, which in their case meant wiring them to the world. A sweep down Crause’s guitar might trigger footfalls, clocks, bells, the crunch of gravel, the crash of cars, the rush of water – anything at all the song demanded, played in real time like notes. The sound of the samples and the sound of the guitar were inseparable, so sometimes Disco Inferno’s songs seemed breached by the sounds they used, stuck in a death-struggle with the everyday: a perfect sonic expression of the compromise and alienation Crause seemed to sing about. Other times the music drowned in its own cacophony. But sometimes the songs and the sound locked together and DI explored a beautiful New World for pop, riding forward on the intoxicating sharpness of their own noise into what should have been an amazing future.
You can get some idea of where they were going on the two albums they made for Rough Trade: DI Go Pop (which is, ironically, the least pop thing they ever did, the sound of a band trying to harness a technological hurricane) and Technicolour (recorded after their samplers were stolen, and so far from the record it could have been, but still a superb, committed collection of songs). By the time Technicolour came out, frustration and internal differences had ended the experiment, with Crause by all accounts disillusioned and unwilling even to accept that his band had created anything worthwhile at all, let alone had been the most forward-looking of the decade. Anyone who saw the band’s 1994 live shows knows how wrong he was – Disco Inferno were uncannily good, miles ahead of anybody else I’ve (even now) heard, an unbelievable flood of bejewelled, alien sound. Ian Crause is the only musician I’ve ever bought a drink for – though he seemed glum, keener to talk about his new-found love of the Byrds than the era his band were surely ushering in for pop.
That left their string of singles as the best evidence that something wonderful had happened. “The Last Dance” is the least formally groundbreaking of DI’s records (though the moment I heard it I was floored by its originality and sense of purpose), with the sample-barrage kept to a minimum. A constant ticking of clocks and in the distance a crowd chanting, that’s all. But “The Last Dance” is also their wisest, most moving song, a meditation on history, on the impossibility of making something new in art and on the need to try and do so anyhow. It’s also their most musically endearing, a tune as taut and poignant as anything Wire ever recorded, with delicate guitar lines meshing and weaving, always pretty but always understated. Ian Crause’s singing was barely singing at all, but he made it a virtue, his slightly breathless voice sounding urgent, desperate to communicate, but at the same time faltering. On “The Last Dance”, he sighs “Was there ever a time / Like this?”, just before the guitars skid all over the track, and it’s as inspiring as it is heartbreaking.
“No oceans left to cross, no mountains left to climb / Least that’s what I’ve been told” : Disco Inferno should have mattered more than anyone, but their curse was to turn up at a time when exploring the frontiers of pop – especially using songs – simply wasn’t fashionable any more. They could have settled for the marginal, dessicated existence granted to those unhappy bands stuck halfway between indie-pop and the avant-garde, but what kind of living is that to scratch out? In 1993, making the most radical guitar music in the world, Ian Crause probably didn’t think he was singing about the years ahead and what they would do to pop, but in a way he was: “The noise of the past builds up into a crescendo / And the waves of rubbish…are amplified a million times or more” Too right: no matter how many lists you list or polls you poll, now matter how often you talk up reheated mediocrities or chuck superlatives around, you won’t convince me that an era where bands as dull as Oasis became multi-millionaires and a band as special as Disco Inferno collapsed un-noticed was anything other than an era where things went catastrophically wrong. “In the end it’s not the future, but the past that’ll get us.” – single of the 90s? This single looked the 90s in the face, and shuddered.
Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s
With this kind of kick-off, you have to ask why the 90s weren’t better. The striated rills of drum that open “Soon” sound like God cracking his knuckles: ten seconds later the wavefront of the song hits you and his uncanny rhythms become your own. A lot has been written about the fabulous sound Kevin Shields could get out of his guitar, how he made the instrument talk in tongues for him and how My Bloody Valentine’s songs sounded like they were in a state of perpetual, endless dissolve. All that stuff is true, but what makes “Soon” so extraordinary is everything else that’s going down – especially, as I say, the rhythm. There’s no sound on “Soon” as slippery or displaced as the alien keening of “Only Shallow” or “To Here Knows When“‘s celestial smear: Shield’s guitar switches from teasy bouncings to great gutsy roars but by Valentine standards it’s quite straightforward. The things that really churn up the song and drive it forward are the motorised bass grind, that delirious beat, the enraptured voice – and the interplay between all these, the tectonic shifts of bass over beat, the way the voice rides and tames the landslide guitar even while getting smothered in it. Rhythm and structure had been MBV’s secret aces ever since they’d put out “You Made Me Realise”, a five-track nail-bomb of compressed beat power where Shields used his guitar to reinforce Colm O’Ciosog’s drumming, and the rhythm mattered more than anything else, pulling the songs back then letting them burst to raging, erotic effect.
The amazing thing about “Soon” is that in sound and arrangement it was the furthest thing imaginable from fifties rock and roll, but still in a literal sense it was a rock and roll song, a record that aimed squarely at the hips. “Soon” may have sounded like an atmospheric storm, but it also felt impossibly carnal – those hungry, whited-out kissers on the single’s cover aren’t there by accident. If you had to explain sex to a machine, you could play it this song: the steady tumble of the rhythm, the excitable bubble of the verses and then the exhausting joy of release as engorged surges of guitar swamp the track. “Soon” isn’t warm or funky, nothing like it, but it is sexy: sex as an abstraction, as a fundamental force.
(And now I’ve tried haltingly to describe it, let’s put “Soon” in context. Even if it wasn’t intentional, the happy effect on punk in Britain was to provide an amnesty, an opportunity for pop to start again and build itself up better this time, away from the public eye. That was what indie music was about, both the rediscovery rock that it turned into and the relentless boundary-pushing modernism that peaked here, with “Soon”. “Soon” was the edge of pop, almost the last time that a guitar-drums-bass-vocals outfit could sound so new, so unselfconscious and so irresistible. The innovation game was up: bands could take the easy way out, buy a bunch of tasty pedals and wander around inside the very accomodating spaces Shields had so kindly set up with Loveless. Or they could try to pick up on the rhythmic explorations of “Soon”, digressing into dance music or pure abstraction. For My Bloody Valentine itself, “Soon” proved impossible to follow, and Kevin Shields has ended up as the post-punk Brian Wilson, albeit one whose masterpiece was released. In the end, only one band took pop further out, and then never made it back. Their story to follow.)
Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s
This record taught me two things, the most important things I learned this decade. First of all it taught me about repetition and how it could work to structure a song, and then go beyond structure to become the song itself. When I felt the light, economical sequencer runs of “Little Fluffy Clouds” pool and ripple in my head was when pop took on an abstract dimension for me, when I realised that I could find myself in a song as much through stability as variation. Up until then I’d used music to explain things, not to explore: I’d listened first for the lyrics, then for a general tone – rage, joy, frustration, boredom – that I could call my own. I still think that’s about the best way there is to haul yourself through adolescence but you’ve got to stop somewhere, and I stopped in Arizona, where the skies always had little fluffy clouds.
The second thing I learned was how unexpectedly gorgeous the recorded human voice could sound. Rickie Lee Jones, sampled by the Orb from some forgotten interview, sounds distracted, close and sexy even before her voice is cut-up and refracted by the band. As well as every little hesitation, you can hear the filmy smack of saliva as her lips part, the wet sound of tongue unpeeling from palate: it’s no wonder she detested a track which sounds like somebody built a studio inside her mouth. But she enraptured me – hearing “Little Fluffy Clouds” was like hearing a spell, and then realising that the same spell was being cast every time someone opened their mouth to speak near a microphone. Maybe it shouldn’t have taken a piece of dance music to wake me up to vocal texture, play and inflection, but it did, and ironically that gave me a way to love the songs I did already even more, just by listening to the how as much as the what.
Between them, repetition and the voice could take me everywhere. Into dance music, obviously – “Little Fluffy Clouds” wasn’t quite the first dance record I liked, but it was the first one I had no choice but to like – but also into drones, into harsher electronic sounds, into avant-rock, into soul, into melodramatic pop. Coming back to the Orb single now, I was a little worried that it might sound clumsy, even silly. Wrong – the track which started all this off for me is still just as dreamy. To make a comparison I wouldn’t have known about then, the bucolic “Little Fluffy Clouds” sounds like Kraftwerk going off to get their shit together in the country – Alex Patterson had learned a lot from their Spartan approach, but he’d also absorbed the rich fluidity of musicians like Manuel Gottsching, whose entrancing E2 = E4 was the root of so much 90s ambient music. And, of course, Patterson’s take on minimalist transcendence comes with a thick side order of English pothead humour. Almost a decade after this song changed my life the plummy opening monologue can still make me smile, with the truth of it as much as anything else: “Over the past few years, to the traditional sounds of an English summer – the droning of lawnmowers, the thwack of leather on willow – has been added a new noise…” Dance music – which is what The Orb are making him talk about – was a revolution that happened one head at a time. This was my turn.
Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles of the 90s
It’s impossible to imagine any other band even attempting something like this. Nobody else, I think, has the right combination: a cabaret singer’s panache, an ear for pop hooks, a dramatist’s eye for character and a dash of experimentalism. It’s very easy to say you’re experimental, it’s not even too difficult to take sound and do magical and unexpected things with it, but it’s dreadfully rare to find a band as willing to push open the pop song like Pulp do on “This Is Hardcore”. That’s why they’re my favourite group, basically.
If this sounds like anyone, it’s Serge Gainsbourg. France’s greatest pop icon would have understood the slow, dark groove that carries “This Is Hardcore”, would have admired the low drag of the strings and the heady, theatrical flourishes, would have arched a brow at Jarvis Cocker’s throaty, desperate delivery, and would certainly have appreciated the porno metaphors. Musically the track is a collection of great moments, each of which follows gracefully and logically on from the last, building and building through loping seductiveness and smoky melodrama to the screaming, draining climax and its loathesome afterglow.
Most of all, though, Gainsbourg would have recognised the awful sexual self-immolation at the ugly centre of “This Is Hardcore”. But where a Gainsbourg hero tends to be doomed, mad or foolish, there’s something essentially sympathetic about them even when they’ve done their lover in with a fire extinguisher. Not so here: in this track, Jarvis sings like a molester, but the worst thing is, you can still hear yourself in it. It’s the ultimate Pulp song, in a way, the end-point of Jarvis’ obsession with the British Way Of Sex – prurient, shameful, obsessional, dirty. All the voyeurs, lechers, seducers and masturbators of Cocker lyrics past combine, and at last, they get what they want, they get to do it.
The results aren’t pretty. The worldview of “This Is Hardcore” is as stark as that of Swans – sex as power, sex as vengeance, sex as catharsis, with no satisfaction involved, just an ever-deepening disgust. The guitars flare around him and Jarvis Cocker sings from a private hell:“This is hardcore / There is no way back for you / This is hardcore / This is me on top of you.” And then, most terrible of all, “And I can’t believe that it took me so long” If you want honesty in pop, here it is, enjoy it: this is as brutal as the form has ever got.
Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s
I think if I could pinpoint one time in my life when I’ve been really, unconditionally happy, this would be the one: April 1995, about half-past eleven in the morning, sitting in T-Shirt and Jeans on the steps of the Bodleian Library, taking a break from some work or other, watching dust dance in the sunlight, watching the sunlight bring out the cream in the marble, and “Finley’s Rainbow” on the walkman. Though I can’t think of a single song more apt, it wasn’t the song that made me so happy. In fact it wasn’t anything that made me happy, which was I suppose the point. I’m not in general a miserable person, but most of the time my mood is pretty much contingent on other people or objects – am I in love with someone? are they in love with me? how are my friends doing? how is my job going? have I paid my bills? isn’t this record terrific? So when happiness creeps up on you like it did to me that morning, you tip your hat to it, and then treasure the moment for a long time afterwards.
A Guy Called Gerald’s Black Secret Technology is a great album, the best jungle album ever, and “Finley’s Rainbow” is at once steeped in its intense, inspired methodology and drawing on something else entirely. Nothing else on the album is as straightforward: the lazy, sweet vocals of a pre-fame Finley Quaye are something earthy and obvious to grab onto. Behind them, the jungle: the word was never, ever so appropriate as when it described Gerald’s teeming music. A drowsy, dislocated bass pulses under twining drums, synthed pizzicatos flit by like strange fauna, and everything’s permeated by a humid gauze of brushes. The drums rattle like bones, and the mood might be arid if it wasn’t for Quaye’s vocals coming down on the song and quenching it like a shower. I didn’t know who Quaye was, didn’t know that “Sun Is Shining” was a lilting reggae standard, but what I did know was that this was at once among the freshest things I’d ever heard and the most timeless. There’s a hint of the jazz singer in Quaye’s voice here, a brassiness, and there’s something like jazz in the music too, something unpredictable, tense and thick. But while his contemporaries took hold of the politest bits of fusion, Gerald – by all accounts a difficult and shabbily treated musician – latched onto a more turbulent tradition, the jazz-funk-electronica of Pangaea-era Miles Davis or Sextant-era Herbie Hancock, and the music he made boiled like theirs had. Combine that with Quaye’s love-drunk lullaby and you have a certain blueprint for wonder.
Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s
It’s just a beautiful song. “The Concept” for me is being young and in love, and I think it probably always will be: I’ve had eight years to grow bored of the feeling and the track, and I haven’t even got bored of the opening lines yet. There may, granted, come a time when I won’t feel able to use the word “young”, but I hope not and so do the band: why do you think they called themselves Teenage Fanclub? Like Sonic Youth, it’s more a promise to themselves than a clutch at straws, a pledge to never making music that can’t live up to their name.The day I grow out of this record is the day I grow out of pop.
“The Concept” is a love song in the very widest sense, though, a grinning big-hearted hug of a tune about your feelings for your friends, for music and being alive. The girl Norman Blake is singing about might be the love of his life, but she might just be his best friend, or just a friend, or not even that: if you write a song this soaked in emotion you’re probably half in love with everyone you meet anyway. Play it when you’re drunk and it sounds like the truest song in the world (even more so than all the other truest songs in the world you hear in that happy state), play it when you’re hungover…well, no, don’t actually, go back to bed and get some sleep. Play it in the warm afternoon afterglow instead. If all that sounds sappy and sloppy, so be it – Teenage Fanclub are that kind of a band sometimes. With Norman Blake’s blocky, friendly chords underpinning the song, how could they not be? But – maybe because it’s rather oblique, maybe because it runs out of words well before you get tired of them – “The Concept” has never seemed sentimental or corny to me.
“The Concept” doesn’t come out of nowhere. It doesn’t come out of Big Star, either: Alex Chilton’s ramshackle big-chord radio pop always had a lairy, menacing edge to it, whereas Teenage Fanclub’s clumsiness is much chummier, as if they’re bashing out the chords so straightforward-like because they’re wearing teddy bear costumes. No, where “The Concept” comes from is the whole heritage of good-time Scottish pop – the Pastels’ American influences and DIY ethic, Edwyn Collins’ knack for finding warmth in the everyday, even a bit of Rod Stewart’s drinking-man’s-romanticism. In the last couple of minutes you get everything, as the Fanclub just solo away like they’re playing a drunken indie-pop “Freebird”, wringing their guitars to squeeze out every last drop of joy. “Blissed out” is a term which got hijacked by the abstracted: as “The Concept” rolls on home, Teenage Fanclub take it back.
Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s
Dance music appreciation tends to end up an uneasy alliance between purism and a promiscuous thirst for novelty. Despite the breathtaking speed at which club sounds evolved between the end of last decade and the middle of this one, a lot of people who listened to and lived out the stuff would be hugely suspicious of any new developments. Simon Reynolds, to whose writings and explorations of dance music Freaky Trigger remains thoroughly indebted, suggests that the experience of clubbing follows a similar pattern to the drug experience: revelation, then exploration, then a slow decline and disillusionment. So the listener wants, for example, to hear techno in the style they associate with their biggest, best nights, but at the same time there’s the creeping feeling that it can never be so good again. Hence the oscillation between the familiar with its diminishing returns, and the new with its unknowable risks.
What has this little precis got to do with DJ Crystl and the mesmerising piece of cyborg-music under discussion? Only that in order for listeners to be turned on to a new genre – even one that had led such a breakneck subcultural existence as jungle – you needed gateway tracks, records so dazzlingly inventive and so perfectly executed that they would open up and validate their style to anyone who heard. For a lot of people I’ve talked to, “Warpdrive” was that record. Once they’d heard it, no going back – no more thinking that drum and bass was novelty music, or thug music, or stupid music. And DJ Crystl wasn’t some talked-up auteur, either, so if you wanted a copy yourself you were forced to buy it on a compilation – Drum And Bass Selection Volume 1, for example – instead of being able to bask in the cosy pleasures of the single-artist LP. In fact, if you want the reason why I’m doing this list in detail rather than the albums one, here it is, this record.
Structurally, “Warpdrive” sticks to a familiar – because awesomely effective – disco dialectic blueprint. You have your beats (clipped and martial), then you have your top-end keyboard hook (sleek and cold), then you have the hook over the beats. But sonically this record is something else – right from the start it surrounds everything with a stark generator thrum, tactile and tense like a bad ozone buildup. That miasmic background cuts the weight from the beats, turning them into quicksilver jolts of rhythm. Listening to “Warpdrive” on headphones is intensely visual, a ride at impossible speeds through an android world: wireframes and manga shapes, claustrophobia and chrome. The breakbeats turn in your head with a shudder, then slither round corners and down holes in the track’s architecture. Other sound-events – tonebursts and soft explosions – rush at you from the edges of the soundfield and then vanish: by the time you’ve fully registered them they’re light years behind you.
When the diffused, chiming ambient hook comes in and the beats and the hum cut out, it’s like you’ve shattered some barrier, and you’re rushing through a space so vast, heavenly and mapless that you might as well be floating. “Warpdrive” is pure sci-fi, the soundtrack to the best video-game you could ever imagine, and six years on I’ve heard no dance record that can touch it. DJ Crystl went back to his hip-hop roots after this, working to fuse that music with drum and bass on some deliciously programmed records which never quite gelled. But if you’ve been reading this list and you’re still looking for that one undisputable electronic record to turn your collection around – well, stop reading and start hunting.