Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

To outrun the 90s, you have to be fast. When the Aphex Twin created “Didgeridoo”, the record that made his name, that’s what he had in mind: to create a dance track so agitated nobody could dance, to turn the music’s own speed against it. Typical Aphex perversity, although he was wrong about the undanceability bit. But that’s typical too: most of Aphex’s greatest tracks are so because they don’t quite alienate the audience enough. In the final analysis, on “Girl/Boy Song” as on “Didgeridoo” or “Come To Daddy” or “On”, Aphex can’t stop himself making pop music, because the contrarian tradition he’s in has veined its way through pop since the beginning. Contrarianism is pop: wanting to be liked and wanting to be hated are just two names for wanting to be noticed.

But what an extraordinary pop star he is! The 90s have been the most self-regarding, self-conscious decade in pop history: everything classified within minutes, judged within seconds, music’s hipster status and semiotic secrets as instantly readable as a barcode. The notorious fissiparity of dance music comes about not just because it’s so creatively fast-moving but because rampant genre mutation and division is its best survival strategy, so long as it’s reliant on cool rather than the respectability and cross-generational appeal of rock. But Aphex Twin goes further than anyone else. He doesn’t play with genre like Coldcut or Beck, he soils it – most of his records can be taken as parody, they infect and disrupt a style every time you start to get a handle on it. “Girl/Boy Song” takes drum and bass and fragments it even further into a palsied beat-skronk which against fearful odds maintains a kind of demented flow. Squarepusher was doing stuff like that too, but “Girl/Boy Song” takes another step, foresees that this giddily nonsensical beat style will become as gray and rigorous as the naff and slick Alex Reece jungle it seemed to be reacting to, and introduces beauty to the mix with a pristine, dazzlingly pretty string arrangement. The result is a marriage of the seraphic and the psychotic that stands as one of the decade’s loveliest and most unforeseen singles.

Aphex Twin became famous because he was a character at a time when dance music was notorious for being ‘faceless’: the pop press latched onto him hungrily, and bit off much more than they could chew. Aphex didn’t just turn his life into a series of ripping rave-age yarns (tanks, bank vaults, lucid dreaming) he took the idea of being techno’s ‘face’ to a hellish extreme, using his mad-eyed stubbly grin as an obscene brand, creating a world in which recognition, the currency of 90s pop culture, was ruthlessly perverted and interrogated. His masterful videos are attacks on all other video, his music at best an inspired denial of the styles that spawned him: Aphex Twin understands his times better than any other musician, and for that he deserves our respect and fear.