Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Every decade finds its mood music, records where the design aesthetic is paramount, records whose use-value lies in the invocation of a particular lifestyle and outlook. The easiest way to locate this music is to look for the most humourless and self-satisfied genre around: new age in the 80s, ‘downtempo’ or ‘blunted beats’ in the 90s . In a culture increasingly dominated by reflexive irony, ‘trip-hop’ remained steely and impervious to any notion that it might be, at base, laughable. The foggy, lo-tempo beats and omnipresent static-crackle of trip-hop proved the perfect music for listeners who had all the fatal authenticity-obsession traditionally associated with the underground, but an absolute lack of energy and wit. The 90s were as style-obsessed as the 80s ever were, and the treacly Mo’Wax music and dope-fixated fashions of this decade will one day be held up to embarassment and ridicule as readily as Spandau Ballet and Robert Elms are now. At least I hope to God that’s the case. For me the nadir of the whole scene came with the sainted response to DJ Shadow’s Entroducing, where a fetish for the means of production (second-hand vinyl…mmmmmm) met aesthetic senses which had been literally blunted by long exposure to lazily fashionable beat abstraction and were ready to roll over and beg at the mere sniff of a minor chord.

But no music is entirely bad: Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” takes the loping atmospherics of trip-hop and creates something of majesty, a record which fulfils every otherwise bogus claim ever made for downtempo instrumental music. It really does fill up a room like smoke, it actually is much greater – whole worlds greater – than the sum of its sampled parts. Trip-hop was always designed to be atmospheric in the shallowest sense – whereas in hip-hop the clothes and look were separate but as integral to the culture as the music was, with trip hop the music just seemed to fade into the look, to become the backdrop to a perpetual catwalk of the stoned. That’s a fate which “Teardrop” escapes from bar one. As bottomless as Dead Can Dance in their heyday, its secret is the way it goes beyond cool and into mystery, guided there by Elizabeth Frazer’s immaculate vocal. A lot of flowery stuff has been written about Liz Fraser, but sometimes she justifies it, sometimes the backing and her mood mesh together: on “Teardrop” she sings as if to herself, and we strain to overhear. That effort pulls us into the song and its hush: sometimes words float up to us – “Love is a doing word….teardrop on the fire” – but mostly the song’s privacy just draws us down deeper.