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.