25 From 97

A selection of 25 most excellent records from 1997, and a trio of photos from the selfsame year

A couple weeks ago, Sari, Kayli and I traded lists of our favorite records from 1997 in a New Years Eve extravaganza. Why 1997, you ask? 1997 was without a doubt my favorite year in memory, and its music more than lived up to the times. If the era's clash of dancefloor futurism, breakbeat science, dusted hip hop beats, chrome-plated r&b and rock's smoldering embers in this year's music remains potent today, it can only have been even more so at the time. Having been skulking around at the time as a moody 16 year old, best believe I can vouch for that. Indeed, I can remember like it was yesterday...

After a 10th grade spent in the depths of hardcore depression, this was the year that I discovered beats (and started making beats of my own), opening up a whole world I'd only glimpsed before: the twin joys of discovery and creation. Suddenly it seemed there might be a way to make it through this crazy thing called life, even for a scared lonely kid like me who never quite fit anywhere else. As such, it's bound to have some of that you had to be there-type magic specific to my own personal recollections. Nevertheless, upon revisiting the music, I suspect there really was something special about that year after all...

25. Depeche Mode Ultra


Synth pioneers get down with that '97 sound, folding hip hop beats into their trademark style with a wink and a nod toward rave culture. Of course, the lads had been on this path ever since Black Celebration (even chilling in Detroit with Derrick May at The Music Institute), but Ultra benefits from superb post-trip hop production by Bomb The Bass' Tim Simenon and even a cameo appearance from Can's Jaki Liebezeit on drums (The Bottom Line). Even if I grew up with their music, this was the very first Depeche Mode album that I owned for myself. It was my way into their Gothic world of electro-blues dread, and to this day remains one of my favorite things they ever did.

24. Photek Modus Operandi


This is one that my man Snakes tuned me into, so I've gotta give credit where its due. It sounded utterly alien to us at the time. I even remember him saying that he didn't get it yet, but could tell that it was important. The x-ray beats of Photek's spectral drum 'n bass vision seemed to align more with trip hop's dread vibes than the mad breakbeat fury that had been jungle's calling card up to that point. Pre-Millenium Tension, to borrow a phrase from Tricky (who released three albums in '96, but not one in '97). The soundtrack to paranoia, Modus Operandi is like The Parallax View, Pi and The Manchurian Candidate all mashed up into one nightmare vision, one that makes more sense in the conspiracy-drenched present than it ever did in sunny 1997.

23. Radiohead OK Computer


I was already a huge fan of these guys when OK Computer came out, having listened to The Bends over and over in 10th grade (no wonder I was so depressed!). I remember at the time having the distinct impression that they were going to drift toward beats somehow, which actually turned out to be true with this record (which they envisioned as The Beatles produced by DJ Shadow). Hearing Paranoid Android on the radio for the first time was one of those great WTF?! moments in my musical youth, and the rest of the album turned out to be just as good (my favorite moment the twisted quasi-trip hop dirge of Climbing Up The Walls). Thom Yorke must be fun at parties...

22. Rockers Hi-Fi DJ-Kicks: The Black Album

Studio !K7

Rockers Hi-Fi were in many ways a second-tier outfit, existing in that satisfying interzone between trip hop and dub reggae, their own records were solid enough but lacked the visionary spark of fellow travelers like Massive Attack and Smith & Mighty. However, magic was wrought when they descended into noname studio late one foggy night in Birmingham to work up this smoked-out DJ mix for Studio !K7, taking in trip hop, dub, abstract techno, jungle, vintage roots reggae and everything in between, dubbing it all into oblivion with MC Farda P toasting over the top like a madman. Along with Smith & Mighty's records, this was my doorway to the music of Jamaica.

21. Blur Blur


Blur's self-titled 4th album found them effacing their own shiny britpop sound and image with a grimy set of songs that come on like a hybrid of "Heroes" and The White Album. Inspired by the burgeoning underground of American indie rock, the band married those shambling lo-fi sounds with a very British knack for penning an indelible hook, resulting in a totally unique album experience. This is where the globe-trotting Damon Albarn, who would go on to record Mali Music, drag his band to Morocco and take part in setting up Honest Jon's Records, is truly born. Best believe, the seeds of the Gorillaz are sown here (look no further than Death Of A Party, which comes on something like a dress rehearsal for Clint Eastwood)!

20. Timbaland And Magoo Welcome To Our World


The first of the Timbaland records in this list. What can I say, he was running tings in 1997! Basically an extended victory lap after his phenomenal winning streak running through records like Ginuwine... The Bachelor, One In A Million and Supa Dupa Fly, it's also a stunning showcase for his chrome-plated machine soul sound. Even though Tim's raps come in for criticism in some quarters, I've always loved his low-slung baritone style, trading verses here with sidekick Magoo along with most of Da Bassment crew. With everyone from Missy Elliott to Ginuwine, Aaliyah and Playa getting down here, he basically managed to capture the party of the year on wax.

19. Ken Ishii X-Mix: Fast Forward & Rewind

Studio !K7

It's a party rivaled only by Ken Ishii's gloriously schizophrenic entry in Studio !K7's X-Mix series, which manages to blend nearly every strand of post-rave music into a seamless 70 minute fun house ride like it was 1992 all over again, even as the entire tapestry was beginning to unfurl in every possible direction. This was the craziest shit I'd ever heard as a 16 year old, with every moment somehow more off the wall than the next, and alongside Odelay my soundtrack to that summer. Just like on Ishii's own records, it's the sound of a guy doing things his own way and sounding utterly unlike anyone else in the process by virtue of being halfway around the world and having to dream it all up from scratch.

18. Ween The Mollusk


Cutting a demented path through the nineties, Ween were like Frank Zappa and The Beatles all rolled into one wise-ass package. With a skewed vision informed by surrealism, stoner logic/humor and a sprawling anti-mythology running through their entire discography, they also had the nerve to possess a knack for penning great tune after great tune that ranked up there with the greats. This proggy, nautical-themed LP is anchored by brilliant moments like Buckingham Green, Ocean Man, Mutilated Lips and the immortal Waving My Dick In The Wind. The Mollusk catches the O.C. And Stiggs of indie rock at the top of their game, and it remains their finest hour.

17. Total What About Us


A Timbaland production for Bad Boy girl group Total, taken from the Soul Food soundtrack. The ladies' harmonies bob and weave through the interstellar machine beats (replete with an almost-subconscious acid-303 line) before Timbaland drops a trademark man-behind-the-boards rap and the four-dimensional beat-boxing enters the fray to take things to another dimension altogether. Back in the early 90s, it used to be that you'd wait out the r&b songs for the hot rap joints on Jammin' z90. Suddenly, everything flipped and the r&b tracks were where it was at, and tunes like this were the reason why.

16. Primal Scream Vanishing Point


Inspired by the 1970s Barry Newman film of the same name, this twisted trip is everything I want in a rock record from 1997. If OK Computer was like The Beatles produced by DJ Shadow, Vanishing Point was something like The Stones mixed by Lee "Scratch" Perry with creative input from Ravi Shankar, Tricky and Joe Henderson. Nearly everything here is bathed in a smoked-out haze of swirling effects and bass pressure, adding even greater depth to killer tunes like Kowalski, Stuka and Burning Wheel. With the added bonus of instrumentals like the jazzed-out Get Duffy, Trainspotting (from the film of the same name) and the mutant g-funk of If They Move Kill 'Em, the album plays like a gripping movie in its own right.

15. Kosmic Messenger Electronic Poetry: The Collected Works Of Kosmic Messenger


An unmissable round up of Stacey Pullen's most dancefloor-oriented sides, this quasi-compilation (over half the songs are exclusive to this set) is Detroit techno soul of the highest caliber. Basically picking up where Funkadelic left off with The Electric Spanking Of War Babies — much like his DJ-Kicks mix from the previous year — it expands that electronic funk template far into the future and never looks back. Pullen had actually played drums and percussion in his youth, and that grasp of polyrhythms always gave his tracks an added physical dimension that set them apart from the linearity of the creeping minimalist brigades, drawing you into their atmospheric, synth-drenched world with a gravity all their own. I've always thought this stuff would have sounded great on the radio alongside contemporary r&b and rap like Masta Ace and Ginuwine.

14. U2 Pop


I simply had to include this one. At the time, I lived this record. Drafting in trip hop maven Howie B. behind the boards, this is the perfect marriage of the indie dance they'd been dabbling in since Achtung Baby and the sun-baked dusted sound that was everywhere by this point (Odelay, #1 Crush, Doin' Time, etc.). Indeed, large parts of this play like an alternate soundtrack to Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet, and fittingly when it came time to release a concert video it was their Mexico City date they chose. This was basically the one time U2 seemed like underdogs, delving deeper yet into dance music against the will of seemingly all their fans (people hated Pop!), and I loved them for it.

13. Carl Craig More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art

Planet E

This was Carl Craig's lush techno masterwork, even if there's a handful of his records that I love even more. In a sense, it's barely even a techno record — running the gamut between house, jazz, trip hop and ambient — which of course makes it techno to its core. Spanning the smeared electronic stylings of his early Retroactive days (Suspiria, As Time Goes By Sitting Under A Tree) to moments that predict the tech jazz of Innerzone Orchestra (At Les, Goodbye World), it's the record that showcases the many facets of Carl Craig. In fact, he loved all this material so much that he recorded an entire other album (1995's Landcruising) while under contract to Blanco Y Negro, just so that he could eventually release this one on his own label!

12. The Beta Band Champion Versions


Now I didn't even know about this one until the following year, when it was reissued as part of The Three EPs compilation. Still, I would have loved it if only I'd been lucky enough to be buying vinyl in the UK at the time! I'd been following Astralwerks (a key outlet for electronic music in the States) closely at the time, and what's this... suddenly they'd signed a rock band? I had to check this out! The Beta Band's brand of slacker rock lies somewhere between Beck's dusted pop and The Beach Boys' 70s records, a perfect and wholly original sound that feels both out-of-time and quintessentially late-90s in the best possible sense. It's hard to resist the sun-baked sway of tracks like Dry The Rain and Dog Got A Bone, as I'm sure John Cusack will tell you.

11. Marshall Jefferson Animals EP


Chicago house don Marshall Jefferson had been around since the scene's mid-eighties beginnings, responsible for epoch-defining house records like Move Your Body, 7 Ways To Jack and The Jungle. Like KRS-One, he could say, I was there. However, this much later 12" release — tucked away on Tresor's sister label KTM to little fanfare — is more a techno record than anything else. The Horse blew me away when I first heard it, sounding like a bullet-train ride through Chiba City, and its unlikely combination of drum machine frenzy and atmospheric serenity still slay me to this day. The kicker is that the b-side, a grinding bass-heavy missive — sounding like a great lost Kevin Saunderson track — is every bit its equal. Night drive music... just keep an eye on the speedometer.

10. Locust Morning Light


Former purveyor of dark electronica Mark Van Hoen wakes up one day and decides he wants to make a Kate Bush record. He wound up turning in one of the great dream pop albums of all time, managing to transcend everything he'd done up to that point in the process. This music sounds impossibly ancient, mysterious and evocative, the perfect backdrop for a raft of breathy vocalists like Zoe Niblett, Craig Bethell and Wendy Roberts. This collection of ethereal torch songs plays like a daydream in musical form, conjuring up images of a fairytale world imbued with both great darkness and light (like all great fairy tales). In fact, the title of The Girl With The Fairytale Dream alone just about sums up the whole affair... this is a record to get lost in.

9. Roni Size/Reprazent New Forms

Talkin' Loud

21st century cybernetic jazz from the Bristol crew, fronted by the great Roni Size, whose position in the crew was analogous to The RZA's in The Wu-Tang Clan. Like that group's album of the same year, this sprawling double-album was a dense world defined by a singular, all-encompassing vision. Needless to say, I dove right in! A perfect melding of past and future — evoking images of juke joints, high rises, dimly-lit street corners and monorails — its pungent, jazz-inflected drum 'n bass vision took a striking live band approach to what had previously been seen as computer music. The double-bass and chopped live drums give instrumentals like Brown Paper Bag, Mad Cat and Ballet Dance a remarkably three-dimensional feel, while vocal tunes like Heroes, Share The Fall, and the title track (featuring Bahamadia) remain among the best songs of the era.

8. Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott Supa Dupa Fly

The Goldmind

Was anyone cooler than Missy Elliott back in the day? Who else could wear a giant trash bag in their music video, chill out inside the Windows 95 wallpaper and still make everyone else look unglamorous and ordinary?! No wonder she could get seemingly everyone who was anyone to make a cameo in the video (Timbaland's little backwards sashay might be the greatest thing ever to appear on MTV)! His beats are at their futuristic peak here, which in any other case would threaten to overshadow the singer, but Missy Elliott is larger-than-life even at the worst of times. Every other line gets stuck in your head and stays there: I sit on hills like Lauryn, my hormones jumpin' like a disco, I smoke my hydro on the d-low, and my ass cheeks they sweat these beats, tell me where the party at, tell me where the party at. Needless to say, this is where the party at.

7. Camp Lo Uptown Saturday Night


These cats couldn't have been much older than I was at the time (they look so young in the music videos!), but they had the 70s down pat. All the vintage vibes tucked away in the beats and lyrics — obscure references and dusty samples galore — made them something like hip hop's counterpart to the neo soul moves of figures like Erykah Badu and D'Angelo. Coming on like a rap LP recorded in 1976, this album's almost too good to be true, squaring the circle between platinum rap and Native Tongues-style hip hop (even roping in De La Soul's Trugoy The Dove for an appearance) just as the twin strains were about to diverge for good.

As an aside, it's funny to note that the 70s crop up so much in this list, but then I guess the burgeoning interest in the era (initiated by grunge?) really came to a head in '97. Which is just another thing to love about the year...

6. Moodymann Silentintroduction

Planet E

Similarly, Kenny Dixon Jr.'s debut album dropped in '97, and it was to house what Camp Lo were to hip hop, so it makes perfect sense that they show up here back to back. Pioneering the filter-house sound that Daft Punk took into the charts, Dixon's records also seemed haunted by the ghosts of soul music past. His output seemed to resonate with everything from Marvin Gaye to Gil Scott-Heron, Larry Heard and Chic, and at this point chiming in perfectly with the rise of The Soulquarians. Indeed, it's a shame that Jay Dee didn't get to do a solo record in '97 too. Imagine if the trinity of Erykah Badu, Moodymann and J Dilla (to my mind roughly comparable figures in relation to their respective scenes) had all debuted the same year!

5. Janet Jackson The Velvet Rope


Of course Dilla had a crucial shaping influence on this record, providing massive (uncredited) inspiration to master-producers Jam & Lewis for tunes like Got 'Til It's Gone (which rather than complaining about, he just remixed to a higher state altogether for the single!). Much like The Soulquarians' output, The Velvet Rope has a retro sensibility but never a retro sound, taking in everything from dancefloor stormers to trip hop downbeat and all manner of moods and grooves over its extended 75-minute running time. You could always count on Ms. Jackson... going back to the days of Control, she was like the older sister I never had! And being considerably younger than The Jacksons, she managed to get hip hop in a way that her older brothers never could, granting her career unprecedented longevity and relevance in a cruel and unforgiving industry, stretching right up to the present day.

4. Terranova Manuel Göttsching

All Good Vinyl

German trip hop crew hook up with 70s krautrock legend Manuel Göttsching and cut the great late-nineties jazz record. This sounded like it was beamed in from another planet, seemingly harking back to a shadowy 1970s even as it felt as futuristic as the metropolis evoked in its title. Chiba City blues, for real. The b-side Clone is just as good, evoking images of The French Connection and The Parallax View. In fact, Terranova were the only crew that almost made this list twice (with their 70s-drenched 12" Contact/DJ-Kicks EP). Even though it was released in December 1997, it felt more like a '98 record (which is when the crew's accompanying DJ-Kicks mix actually came out), so I decided to set it aside on a technicality (and also to give everyone else a chance!). When Terranova were ON, they were unbeatable.

3. Octave One The Living Key To Images From Above

430 West

The Burden Brothers! In high school, this Detroit crew were my Led Zeppelin. I was obsessed with Octave One, who let their beats do the talking with the perfect geometrics of that smooth onyx sound. This CD combined two EPs into one conceptual masterpiece. Along with Kevin Saunderson's Faces + Phases, I bought this in the first order I ever placed to Submerge (in those days, the central emporium for Detroit techno). It felt something like a rite of passage. I often think of this as a sister record to Photek's Modus Operandi, and similarly its rugged street-level minimalism took a minute for me to get a handle on... but once I had, best believe I was hooked for good.

2. SWV Can We


The last of the four Timbaland records here, this is also my favorite. In fact, it's my absolute favorite r&b record, and one of my favorite records period. Another tune made on order for a soundtrack (this time for the Jamie Foxx vehicle Booty Call), like Aaliyah's Are You That Somebody? it transcends its origins to stand as one of the key records of the decade. Its unhurried perfection just unfolds around the ladies, who weave their harmonies through the beats as naturally as you'd expect from a girl group who came up in the heady days of new jack swing. It showed up later in the year on their solid third album Release Some Tension, although nothing on it (save the eerily Reprazent-like double bass moves of the title track) matches its brilliance.

1. Kevin Saunderson X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio

Studio !K7

Number one! Indeed, this is probably my favorite single musical object of all time. All time! Featuring one of my key musical heroes in his prime on the wheels of steel, it captures the vibe of Detroit's recurring Deep Space Radio show for posterity (complete with station idents and narration by DJ Minx). Mixing techno from Detroit, garage from D.C. and a whole brace of tracks from Dutch duo Dobre & Jamez (under myriad guises), its even features both sides of Saunderson's then most-recent 12" Velocity Funk/World Of Deep (which this mix stands in for) and a killer remix of Belgian rave classic Outlander's The Vamp. The whole thing is pure vibe, capturing nearly everything I love about techno. It's got loads of atmosphere sure 'nuff, but its also got unforgettable tunes in spades, and that makes all the difference in the world. If you are at all interested in the intersection of dance and electronic music, you shouldn't spend another day without it.

Kelela – Cut 4 Me

Kelela Cut 4 Me

Fade To Mind 2013

Kelela's Cut 4 Me is without a doubt one of my absolute favorite records in recent memory. Early readers may even remember its quite respectable placement in The Parallax 100, lodged in there at #70 (nothing to sniff at). Interestingly, it was initially released not as a double-gatefold album statement, but as an unassuming digital mixtape. That tape's origins lie in the L.A. singer's decision to write a set of songs around a selection of beats from the twin Night Slugs and Fade To Mind crews, haunting their striking sonic futurism with a bewitching vocal presence. The tape's Trans-Atlantic origins and down-and-dirty reality (essentially, a singer freestyling over some beats) places Cut 4 Me at odds with much now-pop, which often suffers from suffocating over-production, in which all life is strangled from the song in the process.

Kelela out among the stars

Cut 4 Me is a record defined by its contradictions: on one hand it's strikingly ethereal and absorbingly atmospheric, like a Detroit-inflected 4AD, while on the other it's possessed of a rugged bottom end that will ring familiar to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with grime. With more than a hint of déjà vu with regard to the angular attack of that 21st century art form, this is RnB at its most unselfconsciously futuristic. One thinks of The Neptunes, not just their sonics but even the visions conjured up by their very name. Cut 4 Me sounds like a pop music sprung from the supersonic waters of Neptune. Bodies dancing in slow-motion beneath blacklight, iridescent skin aglow in shades of azure a million light years from home.

And yet, the strange secret is that even at its iciest, plumbing sub-oceanic depths, the record somehow maintains a warm, soft glow running through its very core. The record's lyrical preoccupation lies with love, and the battlefield that so often springs up around it, even as it plays like a soundtrack for situations and emotions that haven't even yet arisen. Future music, in other words. So, let's dive into the peculiar world of Cut 4 Me, and in the process, maybe take a peek at what's in store...

Kosmic Messenger Electronic Poetry: The Collected Works Of Kosmic Messenger Elypsia

The record opens with the looping struck metal of Guns & Synths, a motif that we'll return to time and time again, before electro-shock snares snap a proto-rhythm along its bow like gunfire. Moody Detroit-style sequences (think Kosmic Messenger) arc into earshot, and then the track really begins to unfold, riding a gently chugging synth pop bassline in graceful slow-motion. In a striking twist, the bass drops out and the track seems to snap around Kelela's soaring vocals, its extreme downbeats seeming to trip into hallucinatory double-time. Her refrain is echoed by what sounds like flutes, but might well be her own vocals sped up ardkore style.

The Prodigy Music For The Jilted Generation XL

A wicked track in other words, and one that I swear has distinct shades of The Prodigy's DNA about it (particularly circa Music For The Jilted Generation). It's the sort of thing that I well could be imagining — synapses firing in distorted recognition of a flame's shadows on the cave wall — but even so, it's an impression I haven't been able to shake since the day I first heard it... so maybe there's something to it after all? The beats here by Night Slugs/Night Voyage auteur Bok Bok, which underline the play of fragile atmosphere and jagged beats throughout the record, all of which is given an otherworldly glow by Kelela's haunting vocal presence. It all seems to call back memories half-remembered, mixed together like oil in the ether.

Vangelis Blade Runner Atlantic

Similarly, Go All Night — with its strung-out synth architecture and power up electronic sweeps — evokes distinct memories of the Blade Runner soundtrack, not to mention The Prodigy's ambient coda to Speedway Theme From Fastlane (which itself sampled liberally from the Vangelis score). The liquid synths hover somewhere in that undefined territory between organ and distended string-section drift beneath, while Kelela's vocals weave through it all in graceful slow-motion like an errant solar sailer.

The Solar Sailer takes flight

Gliding on a post-Timbaland chrome-plated riddim trading moves with a muffled beat box, fellow Angeleno (and Night Slugs moonlighter) MORRI$' trap-style beats uncoil in the purple haze of alien dreamtime as Kelela unveils the chorus:

Stayed up talking all night.

Take my body it's so right.

Dyin' but we go all night...

Baby I don't know if that's all good.

With the unmistakable echoes of Aaliyah's Are You That Somebody? in its sentiment, the hesitant longing gradually gives way to the inevitable feeling of gravity's pull (we smokin' out baby).

Zapp The New Zapp IV U Warner Bros.

By now adrift through inner space, a vocodered bridge on the order of Zapp's Computer Love intones oh, my baby on loop, carrying into the next verse where Naughty By Nature chants build the zero-gravity momentum like it were the most natural thing in the world. This is Chiba City RnB, par excellence. The tune appears in two abridged versions on Cut 4 Me, interludes subtitled Let Me Roll and Let It Burn. Frustratingly — like the World Of Deep interlude on E-Dancer's Heavenly — the track isn't present here in its entirety (it was a stand-alone single). On the bright side, it does work remarkably well scattered through the record in a series of glimpses.

The Orb Auntie Aubrey's Excursions Beyond The Call Of Duty Ultra

Further dreamtime vibes are unveiled on an extended mix of Bank Head, which seems to build on a progression of nineties — if not earlier — electronica over clickety-clack percussion. Think The Orb's Auntie Aubrey's Excursions Beyond The Call Of Duty, particularly Readymade's Ambient State. That same sense of weightless drift, over which the vocals swerve without warning into a searing falsetto. Despite the double-time clap pushing things toward 4/4 trance territory, it's just not gonna be that simple, and everything's left remarkably unresolved.

Fade To Mind's Kingdom drags renegade kick drums beneath it all, weaving snatches of the vocal — sped-up into chipmunk velocity — its twisted tapestry lying somewhere between freestyle, ardkore and peak-era Jam & Lewis. Kelela's untreated singing is pure RnB, rendered otherworldly in sheets of intersecting sound. The roar of distant thunderclaps tremble in the distance as the track sneaks into skipping double-time, building towards track's inevitable conclusion. Kelela intones, time goes by, with no effect and with no warning whatsoever, the dream is over.

Dizzee Rascal Boy In Da Corner XL

Which brings us to the more abrasive corners of the record. This is still surrealism, but one with all the jagged edges — the bite — retained in full force. The strident lead into Enemy comes on like struck sheet metal, ringing in combination against its ricochet percussion, bringing to mind the similar Sylvian-esque shades of Dizzee Rascal's Boy In Da Corner and its koto grime moves. Fittingly, Nguzunguzu (of Fade To Mind) drags in what sounds like a spiraling koto and threads it through the rapid-fire percussion, the sound of breaking glass folded into the beat like a hidden bear trap.

Wiley Treddin' On Thin Ice XL

It's all of a piece with the frozen wastelands of Wiley's awesome Treddin' On Thin Ice LP (another Parallax favorite), with its unlikely collision of harsh grime soundscapes and occasional flourishes of vintage RnB (Special Girl). The paradoxical clash of Kelela's hazy vocals and up front, knife-edged riddims also brings to mind Alice Perera's towering performance on Smith & Mighty's Big World Small World, a record defined by its rootsical widescreen textures and often stark, post punky beat architecture.

Smith & Mighty Big World Small World Studio !K7

Keep It Cool recalls similar terrain, with Kelela's soaring vocals cutting through the track like a knife, even as an almost under-the-breath delivery offers up the counterpoint. Crashing industrial beats lie at the center of Keep It Cool, building the ideal framework for a grinding Reese-style bassline to push the track into overdrive, sawing through its center with a raw and rugged fury. The sentiment of Kelela's vocal even sounds like something from an old ardkore track:

Round and round inside our heads we're going nowhere.

Focusing is hard you're telling me 'cause I'm not there.

This ain't no coincidence taking all I've got,

I almost surrendered, why must we...

Why must we keep it cool?

The effect lends an almost ungainly, staggering quality to whole affair, bringing to mind some of the best techno (thinking here of Kevin Saunderson's E-Dancer Vocal Mix of Octave One's Blackwater). The searing production from Night Slugs stalwart Jam City is firmly in the tradition of Detroit's unlikely pact between the rough and the ethereal. Flutes flutter in the rafters like digital birdsong, while synths and vocals clash with one another at jagged perpendiculars. It's at times like these that one wonders if this record isn't in many ways a vision of a downbeat vocal techno. Like the music of Dâm-Funk, it does seem to hover between both worlds...

Japan Tin Drum Virgin

Driving the point even further is Floor Show, a sprawling slab of machine soul par excellence. A twisting, gnarled synth lead winds through the track in slow-motion, while another Japan-style synth progression pins the counterpoint, the rhythms trading bars between muffled percussion and crashing drums. Kelela's voice soars (although, truth be told, her voice soars everywhere here) across it all, offering another biting glimpse of romantic intrigue:

Ain't never left although I tried a million times.

Wonder how it feels, I'll never know you're never mine.

You should stop the front before I catch you in a lie.

You forget my name, but you say it every night.

A stanza worthy of TLC right there, with all the subdued venom that implies. This woman's been burned one time too many. And yet it's delivered in such an uncanny manner that it manages to transcend all the drama, all the lies, watching them recede onto the horizon in a mist before arriving at another plane altogether (now that's something you don't see every day!).

TLC Fanmail LaFace

This is dream city music, nocturnal and cut adrift in the same way Go All Night was, but there's also the unmistakable bitter aftertaste of trip hop menace lurking within the proceedings. Girl Unit (chalk up another one for Night Slugs) manages to blend a spoonful of RnB, trip hop and Detroit techno into a blazing cocktail of otherworldly dream pop, sounding utterly unlike anything else in memory.

Then, without warning, everything drops out but a lone ethereal synth, and Kelela breaks it down once and for all:

Giving you my everything,

You turned around and did things your way.

I try to fight the urge to define,

Letting go of things that ain't mine.

At which point the ghost town climax hits, with its towering organ refrain:

Desperate for another day,

Wish I knew the thing to say.

Spent my time building you up,

And now it's falling down.

And you're left, deserted, to walk alone among tombstones, through a graveyard of broken hearts and dreams...

Erasure The Innocents Mute

Like an apparition, Do It Again creeps into view on a plaintive, shimmering synth line (something about it makes me flash on Erasure's When I Needed You). It cuts crisp and clean through the mix, driven by NA's (score one for Fade To Mind) floor tom accents in a soundtrack style. With her vocals right there in the forefront this time, unabashed and unvarnished in the extreme, Kelela alternates between drifting, drawn out phrasing and a counterpoint wherein she repeats the track's title in rapid monotone — Doitagain, doitagain, doitagain —  like some sort of android left on the forbidden planet.

The Black Dog Spanners Warp

Plangent synth tones breathe darkness into the mix, before the percussion builds into a throbbing rhythm for the last minute of the tune's stay. The effect reminds me of nothing so much as the skittering digital percussion on The Black Dog's arty techno missives circa Spanners (particularly End Of Time and Chase The Manhattan), capturing that same sense of hurling oneself into the void without the slightest inkling of who or what is out there. Choice stuff.

Janet Jackson Control A&M

The title track draws further into 1980s-style arrangements, with its sparkling tones, big drum hydraulics and a bassline that seems to bounce along the top of the rhythm like a skipped stone. Kelela's searing harmonies are at their tightest here, strikingly crisp even as the track gradually veers toward the hallucinogenic in ways you wouldn't quite expect. This is the second of the Kingdom tracks, although it's wildly different from the preceding Bank Head. That tune was one of the record's most atmospherically dreamy, while this one's surrealism hinges not on the axis of spacious production but the strange juxtaposition of its base materials. The production here remarkably up-front and in-your-face, like the clattering soundscapes crafted by Jam & Lewis on Janet Jackson's Control.

Prince And The Revolution Purple Rain Warner Bros.

With a dejected synth pinned to a beat like collapsing buildings, Send Me Out similarly comes on like the granddaughter of Prince at his most disarmingly deconstructed — songs like Girl and The Beautiful Ones — underlining how often this record, for all its absorbing ambience, is actually quite skeletal and nimble. The sound is a rather shy one, refusing to reveal itself right away, like the first shades of spring rising from the depths of winter.

Sun Electric Present Apollo

Casual synths make their cameo in the chorus, evoking imagery of ascending glass escalators is the fading afternoon sun, underpinning one of the most traditionally RnB set of vocals on the record. The third of the Kingdom productions, its faint echoes of prime electronica — shades even of R&S/Apollo, and the similarly fragile glass escalator sounds of Sun Electric circa Present, perhaps — and Paisley Park make perfect sense in light of Bank Head and the title track, rounding out a key trilogy underpinning the record.

Kenny Larkin Metaphor R&S

Something Else (the second Nguzunguzu production here), is similarly deliberate and delicate, drifting at the other end from the stark percussive attack of Enemy. It's all quite stripped down, with little more than a slight snatch of analogue warmth from a synth to carry the melody, its rhythm defined by little more than a recurring snap. Fragments of a fluttering digital synth sneak in just a hint of ornate filigree, bringing to mind Kenny Larkin's shimmering Kurzweil excursions circa Metaphor. It's also another moment haunted by the spectre of trip hop, particularly Björk's Post-era flirtations with the genre, sounding something like the skeletal remains left behind by another song...

I already know, I've seen the future and it's over

The Art Of Noise Who's Afraid Of The Art Of Noise ZTT

Of course there's a coda tucked away in the last minute of the song to catch you completely off guard, when Kelela loops a wordless staccato to echo The Art Of Noise's Moments In Love! It's a fantastic moment of circular logic, harking back to the slice of instrumental dream pop that turned out to make an unlikely1 splash on both the Billboard Hot Dance/Disco Singles and Hot Black Singles charts in 1986 (see also Mýa's It's All About Me, with its subtle shades of Moments In Love sketched in). To this day, you can still hear Moments In Love on Magic 92.5 from time to time, a reminder that RnB and dream pop have been au fait from day one.

Locust Morning Light Apollo

The plaintive recline of A Lie is probably the most dream pop moment of the record. Drifting in on pure atmosphere, it opens with twenty-seconds of the rhythm of a car's windshield wipers, seeming to capture the moment the rainclouds part as the wipers are switched off, the windows rolled down and the melody of birdsong fills the soundscape. A lonely Rhodes enters the fray to lay out the plaintive melody, and the vocals drift like mist across its surface, finding Kelela at her most solemn and wistful. The effect reminds me of nothing so much as Locust's dream pop masterpiece Morning Light (particularly Jukebox Heart).

Grey and cloudy, it rains every day

The vocals might be the record's most traditionally RnB, evoking the peak-era balladry of SWV and Aaliyah, particularly their turn in the chorus:

Bound, though you are free to do what you want.

It'll be just fine and I know it.

More Rockers Dub Plate Selection Volume One More Rockers

The second of Bok Bok's soundscapes (after the opening Guns & Synths), there's a fitting shadow of jungle in its errant bleeps, slipped into the placid atmosphere in such a way that should break up the magic yet only adds to the whole effect. I'm once again reminded of Smith & Mighty, or even More Rockers, all those junglist torch songs on Dub Plate Selection Volume One and Selection 2 like I Need Some Lovin', Kissing Game and Rainbows. Like everywhere else on this record, there's such a powerful sense of atmosphere swirling around the song that it compounds its gravity until you can't help but be drawn in.

It's only a matter of time, couldn't hate you forever.

Alter Ego Alter Ego Harthouse

It all comes full circle with the closing track, Cherry Coffee, wrapping up with a fusion of nearly every aspect of the record that's come before. Starting with nothing but a rhythm tapped out on a shard of metal, sounding like sonar in the deep, it lasts a solid minute of isolation before spectral synths shear into view with an effect that splits the difference between spooked and soothing. This is pure ambience, reminding me of nothing so much as the first Alter Ego record — especially the languid pools of synthesizer in Soulfree — and its sleeve's evocation of Joe Henderson's Inner Urge perfectly hints at the mood shaped here.

Octave One The Living Key To Images From Above 430 West

A fretless bass provides the tune's central melodic motif, along with most of its rhythmic propulsion, before piano chords drop in out of nowhere like a relic from the relics. Much like the pianos that turn up unannounced amidst the lush techno of Octave One's Burujha, they seem to conjure up the mood of 1970s invisible soundtracks and all the imagery that implies. Put crudely, we're talking about The French Connection, Curtis Mayfield record sleeves, Herbie Hancock's shirts and the orchestral arrangements of Charles Stepney all swirling in a mnemonic mist.

Janet Jackson The Velvet Rope Virgin

The vocals weave a tapestry in the same way Janet Jackson's often would, something like the mahogany moodiness of Velvet Rope by way of Control's chrome futurism at its most wistfully atmospheric. The almost Liz Fraser-esque vocal treatments (think Cocteau Twins circa Four-Calendar Café and her angelic cameos on Mezzanine, with just a dash of Mýa thrown in for good measure) mesh beautifully with the ambient synth washes and a sublimely delicate atmosphere is conjured up deftly in the blending of the two. Little surprise that it's Jam City behind the boards again, with his firm grasp of Detroit-inflected futurism. Its a perfectly executed Gaussian drift, and the perfect ending to this stunning record.

Kelela Cut 4 Me Deluxe Edition Fade To Mind

Unexpectedly, Cut 4 Me was later issued on both double CD and 12" vinyl a couple years later, coming on the heels of The Parallax 100 and my demand that it come out on wax... not that I want to take credit for it or anything. Actually, it was bound to happen either way: the record works as such a perfect album experience, it would have been a crime if it hadn't happened. The truth is, this is one of the great RnB albums of the 21st century, which itself has hardly been a slow era for the form (if not its very peak).

We are stardust

Indeed, Cut 4 Me is a sketch of everything of-the-moment RnB should aspire to. Transcending its rugged origins even as it uses them to its benefit, what began life as a mixtape puts to shame the lion's share of the more self-consciously important album statements in recent memory. This is a music from the outer rim, deep space music that links everything from Detroit techno, low-slung trip hop, chrome-plated RnB and rave's morning-after come down in a stardust constellation of pure machine soul.

And yet this inscrutable, nebulous music soundtracks the vagaries of the heart, matters that will resonate with most of us. I Second That Emotion, and so on and forth. For all it's futurism, this music is of a piece with the lush, Another Green World-esque smooth soul of Marvin Gaye circa Here, My Dear and the fragile soundscapes of the Trouble Man OST. In fact, the unspoken truth of the matter has been with us from the very birth of machine soul: that within its tricky rhythms, liquid synth architecture and futurist intent, lies an all too human heart. A contradiction perhaps, but above all else, that's what makes it so special.



Or, perhaps not so unlikely, considering The Art Of Noise's prior pedigree: placing in at #2 on Billboard's 1984 New Black Artists chart and records like Beat Box and Close To The Edit placing at #10 and #17, respectively. Not to mention their work on Malcolm McLaren's incursion into electro/hip hop D'ya Like Scratchin', another record that had an outsized influence on RnB of the next decade (and beyond).

It’s Going Down For Real

Welcome to 2019

The song creeps onto the dancefloor, slow-motion beats twist and turn as the refrain gets chanted over and over, a sick sax loop slithers across booming 808s... ghosts of Low Rider, sounds looped to infinity, and War's crisp sound echoes in the ether. The crisp unfolding percussion sounds in 1975 like a blueprint for large swathes of machine soul — alongside Fresh, Sly Stone and Marvin's Trouble Man — with just an errant bit of saxophone in the fade to lay dormant for a solid 40 years before reawakening, punched up wildly in the mix in vivid 3D. Flo Rida/Low Rider... almost like it was etched into the code way back when.

Call back the subroutine and run again, loop back and then fast-forward... that's the way works, after all. Playing with time, turn back the page for a moment to envision the future, and cut a jagged crab walk toward enlightenment. Two steps forward, one step back. Rethink/remodel: how else do you work your way back from a dead end? A couple years spent in the wilderness, but that's a temporary condition too: every trend fades to make way for another, before sometimes returning like History Repeating. After awhile, you begin to see the patterns.

So as we stand at the precipice of 2019, you can almost see the ones and zeros criss-crossing and cross-pollinating, arcing toward the real once again. After some delay, the shock of the new returns like an old friend (file under futurism). Wrapping up the last couple pages of the Terminal Vibration in the first quarter of the year, as we reroute the circuitry into sprawling realms of machine music (and beyond), and it feels like A Sort Of Homecoming. 1997 or 1993... or something else entirely? It seems only time will tell. After all, it always does in the end.