So you've absorbed those death disco tapes already, and I'm back with an armful of records. Let's head over to Raven's place up there on the corner and give a few of these a spin. I've got some of the heaviest fourth world voodoo punk funk here - about half the records in the crate - brought to you by the three major dynasties of post punk coming out of London, New York and Bristol, but today we're gonna start with the heady interzone between last episode's new wave boogie and the voodoo slates to come: I'm talking about the Spartan minimalistic funk turned out by crews hailing from places like Manchester, Leeds and (especially) New York.
Interestingly, nearly all of these groups would wind up shearing into a sort of new wave boogie as the decade progressed, while others wound up providing crucial building blocks for hip hop, downbeat and even house. Yet there's one band who emerged just a little bit later, a band whose sound sprang from these same tangled corridors but then managed to spread out across the radio waves and set the charts ablaze, conquering the world in the process. I'm talking now about a band that everybody knows... a little band from L.A.
I'm talking about The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers were everywhere in the nineties, maintaining a strong presence right up to the present day, even making their way into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2012. However, before breaking out as megastars in 1991 with Blood Sugar Sex Magik, they managed to put out four solid records between the years 1984 and 1989 that elaborated on the punk funk template and imbued it with a healthy dose of California sun. These records all have a chunky, spacious sound, sporting booming drums, chiming guitars and Flea's trademark slap-bass all mixed down with a crisp, vibrant production very much of a piece with everything discussed here today.1
Surprisingly, I've found that many fans of the band's later material seem to turn their nose up at the early stuff, the Hillel Slovak2 era. What gives?! Tunes like the pile-driving Jungleman (from the George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley), True Men Don't Kill Coyotes, Taste The Pain and Hollywood (Africa) (their take on The Meters' immortal New Orleans funk jam Africa) are unmissable romps across the Venice Beach pier, filled with youthful exuberance and rude spirit. Behind The Sun even takes things into Parallax Pier territory, with chiming guitars and a sing-song chorus that brings to mind the Tom Tom Club's sessions at Compass Point!
At this point, the Chili Peppers would often turn to covers of rock and soul staples like Jimi Hendrix's Fire, Sly & The Family Stone's If You Want Me To Stay, Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues and Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground (which I'd argue tops the original - blasphemous, I know... but so true!). The fascinating thing about the Hendrix and Dylan covers in particular is the way they highlight early examples of - for all intents and purposes - rapping, as if the band were reaching back and paying homage to the roots of Anthony Kiedis' trademark rapid-fire delivery. It's also interesting to note the band's unexpected avant garde pedigree (for all the hipster haters out there): original drummer Cliff Martinez3 had previously drummed for a latter day incarnation of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, while Gang Of Four's punk funk godfather Andy Gill was drafted to produce their self-titled debut.
Gang Of Four, hailing from Leeds, were the prototypical minimalist post punk band. Indeed, one could almost have them down as a punk funk counterpart to Wire. They pared all elements deemed unnecessary from their music, leaving a sparse, wiry sound that moved like clockwork mechanisms travelling across a grid at strict right angles. Emerging on Bob Last's Fast Product imprint - incidentally where The Human League started out as well - the band released their debut EP, Damaged Goods. The title track, Armalite Rifle and Love Like Anthrax brilliantly fleshed out the different corners of the band's stark modernist sound and they were accordingly signed by major label EMI for their debut LP. Entertainment is one of those quintessential post punk records,4 housing fierce, taut missives like Not Great Men, Ether and At Home He's A Tourist that have gone down as indelible post punk classics. The band famously aimed for a dry, spartan sound - free of rock's wild abandon and detached from its roots in the blues - and it's a sound they achieve to the fullest here.
However, one of my favorite moments from the band is their 1979 non-LP b-side It's Her Factory, where they make room for a bit of reverb - bathing the lead melodica in an eerie glow - giving the whole thing a sense of relatively spacious atmosphere. Solid Gold, the group's sophomore record, accordingly seemed to follow suit, allowing a little air into the production across the space of the album. The songs themselves may not have been quite as incendiary as those on the diamond-hard debut, but tunes like He'd Send In The Army and A Hole In The Wallet are emblematic of the record's focus on tricky, twisted rhythms and an increasing focus on atmosphere and dynamics. Meanwhile, the desolate Paralysed dragged the tempos down to a staggering crawl.
It's certainly an interesting step toward the band's later period, where they morphed into a strange punk/boogie proposition that seems to be endlessly maligned by the cognoscenti but I nevertheless find oddly fascinating. 1982's Songs Of The Free is a deeply unusual LP that veers between Heaven 17-esque new pop like I Love A Man In Uniform and the atmospheric downbeat reverie of closer Of The Instant. We Live As We Dream, Alone, which comes on like a booming dub version of one of the band's earlier punk funk excursions, just might be the best thing here. The record quite simply makes a virtue of simply sounding like nothing else around. When you factor in the remaining tracks and the album's evocative sleeve... well, it's a cool little record.
Unfortunately, the band's next album, Hard, was anything but. As such, it's even more maligned by just about everyone. And yet. And yet... there is a fair bit of solid new wave boogie to be found here, for those inclined. The opening Is It Love - which was the album's big single, even getting a 12" Extended Dance Mix - is a lush new pop number that may be a million miles away from Damaged Goods but is nonetheless an excellent slice of silky smooth dance pop. Elsewhere, the atmospheric Woman Town wouldn't sound out of place on the second side of Songs Of The Free.5 Not that I'm making a case for the album as some sort of lost classic, you understand! But it certainly has its moments. Hard turned out to be the final album of the band's original run, capping off a discography that, when taken as a whole, offers us an intriguing glimpse at the way a bunch of punks might ultimately wander from the pit into the disco, turning up some unique sounds along the way.
Another group who made a similar transition were A Certain Ratio. Yes, A Certain Ratio! They seem to perennially suffer the fate of being damned with faint praise - often getting lost in the Factory shuffle - but they get my vote over Gang Of Four any day.6 These guys are the perennial underdogs in the post punk sweepstakes. They may have never got around to making that stone cold front-to-back classic record, but their discography offers up a wealth of the greatest punk funk you could ask for. The Early anthology put out by Soul Jazz made this point brilliantly. Take a song like Flight. This is one of the top five or so tunes in this continuum. Utterly unique, Woebot nailed it when he noted the song's gigantic ethereal sound like a yet more liquid Can. Word.
Infamously, the band were recording their debut album in Newark, New Jersey when the working mixdown was inadvertently wiped by the engineer while the band were out celebrating the final day of recording! On returning to Manchester, the band were miserably forced to work up their debut album by polishing demo takes with producer Martin Hannett. Already feeling quite defeated, they were then slated to back Grace Jones on a song called Again before the project fizzled out unceremoniously.7 The breaks just wouldn't come! Despite the band's seemingly endless plague of bad luck, they managed to turn out a whole raft of first rate material like Do The Du, Shack Up and The Fox, all of which were prototypical post punk of the highest caliber.
From there, the band continued to change with the times and edged ever closer into new pop/jazzdance territory. Sextet and the Knife Slits Water - with the
Kether Hot Knives (Mix In Special) version on the flip - is the grooviest, tightest post punk record you could ask for and the avant cousin to the whole bedroom funk concept I'm forever hinting at (there's a feature in there somewhere, believe me). The sound leans ever-so-slightly into early Level 42 territory (nothing wrong with that), but maintaining traces of the spooky unhinged voodoo of their earliest recordings in those chanted vocals and the spaces between the spaces. Chanted vocals in this style are the prime signifier of mid-period punk funk, evoking mysterious corridors within the groove that one might get pulled into at any moment.
I'd Like To See You Again veers further yet toward a certain sleekness, even if a tune like Saturn is of a piece with the band's earlier material (in spirit at least). Elsewhere, Hot Knights is a vocal adaptation of the Kether Hot Knives version of Knife Slits Water. Still, the heart of the record lies in tunes like Touch and Axis which are very Jamaica, Queens jazz/funk/boogie, and before you know it (1984) you've got a record like Life's A Scream, killer dance pop on the order of INXS or - once again - Level 42 that takes you into the glitz of the era's overground nightclubs. Moonwalking in neon. With those triggered oof, oof vocals - straight out of the electro playbook - A Certain Ratio have wandered into the disco even more convincingly than Gang Of Four managed around the same time.
However, if there were one band that could boogie with the best of them, it was surely Ian Dury & The Blockheads. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick has that cruising city streets at night groovy thang going... in fact, the backing track could practically fit right in there on Off The Wall (with the chorus sounding not unlike Jermaine Jackson's Erucu)! Only Ian's conversational Midlands lead vocals - think Mike Skinner in The Streets - and Davey Payne's wild sax solo give this away as something other, conjuring up images of The Blockheads grooving immaculate on some cramped, smoke-bathed stage in a ramshackle seaside pub out in Essex.
Debut album New Boots And Panties!! is an absolute treasure, with the nimble bedroom funk of Wake Up And Make Love With Me setting things off on a drifting mirage of rhythm before following up with more skewed boogie in the shape of If I Was With A Woman and I'm Partial To Your Abracadabra (there are even a few undisclosed moments of straight up punk tacked onto the end to boot!). The key to The Blockheads' seemingly natural grasp of funk dynamics - this in 1977, a full year before even Adolescent Sex - must surely be their jazz chops. Indeed, I have a Steely Dan documentary on the making of Aja that features Ian Dury as a frequent commentator, and one could almost read the band's sound as an outgrowth of the band's dancefloor sides like Peg and The Fez. Perhaps not totally accurate, but an interesting thought nonetheless.
Of course Ian Dury ended up writing himself into the Compass Point story a few years later with Lord Upminster, which was recorded in Nassau with Sly & Robbie and features the excellent Paradise Garage staple Spasticus (Autisticus). Like Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, it hinges on the axis of silky smooth verse juxtaposed against abrasive chorus, revelling in Dury's clever wordplay. While I could dive further into the Compass Point All Stars at this point, along with figures like Grace Jones and Lizzy Mercier Descloux, in truth they will all warrant their own chapter in the Terminal Vibration saga (forthcoming in a month or so) and ultimately a full feature in their own right (as Summer arrives, most likely). So with whispers of the Paradise Garage still hanging in the air, let's take a left turn into the streets of New York.
The Big Apple was rather appropriately a hotbed of punk funk activity, starting with No Wave bands like DNA, Teenage Jesus And The Jerks and especially James Chance & The Contortions crawling out of the sewer at the tail end of the decade. James Chance came on like a skronky, more punk Blockheads (or Richard Hell & The Voidoids gone funk) with records like Buy and Off White (released as James White & The Blacks). The production was sparse and the rhythms stripped to their bare bones, like James Brown circa The Payback shot through with atonal, abrasive punk spirit.
However, it's the slightly later N.Y. material that concerns us today, permeated as it is with atmosphere. A particularily good example of this transition would be Black Box Disco (from the Vortex OST), featuring Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus And The Jerks, which is the most sure-footed nimble punk funk imaginable, cooked up by the Vortex house band as film dialogue - of what sounds like a torture scene - floats over the top. It's terrifically magical track that works on most dancefloors in a way that the earlier No New York bands would not.8 The remainder of the soundtrack is quite atmospheric, with almost no beats at all (the one exception being The Chase, which is the cousin of mid-period A Certain Ratio).
While we're getting into punk funk at its most dexterous, mention must be made of Joseph Bowie's Defunkt. As mentioned before, this crew were the prime influence on The Red Hot Chili Peppers and you can certainly hear it, especially in Joseph Bowie's vocals... the only thing lacking is that Slovak/Frusciante guitar crunch. Tunes like Illusion (from 1982's Thermonuclear Sweat) and Strangling Me With Your Love (from the 1980 self-titled debut) were far more stripped to the bone than nearly any straight-up funk band of the era, often recalling the classic one-the-one funk of James Brown circa Hell, while moments like Make Them Dance moved wild shapes at a brisk tempo that reach almost afrobeat levels of pitched insanity. In The Good Times (yet another riff on Chic's Good Times bassline) even highlights a certain affinity between Defunkt's no-nonsense approach and the homespun funk that the Sugar Hill and Paul Winley backing bands were working up on the early rap records around the same time.
However, if there was a New York label that was the standard bearer of Downtown dancefloor-heavy punk funk, then it was Ed Bahlman's 99 Records. With the label's striking visual aesthetic, featuring vivid, colorful, of-the-moment artwork, it seemed to capture the spirit of the times at the nexus between the post punk avant garde and the post-disco dancefloors of the era (and as such places it at the forefront of today's discussion). The material released on the label was heavy on atmosphere while maintaining a distinct pop edge, and tellingly more than a few tunes made their way onto Larry Levan's turntables at the Paradise Garage.9
Liquid Liquid were one of two bands whose releases were central to the label's discography and are probably the most widely known. Plying a heavily percussive - almost tribal - sound, their music was spacious and atmospheric, with ghostly chants fading in and out of the mist as the band churned out a loose-limbed brand of dancefloor funk. The Optimo EP, with its swirling red and yellow op-art imagery, turned out to be the group's preeminent record. The title track pummels you with a frenzy of percussion interlocking with a clockwork bass groove as scat vocals dance across its surface, while Cavern rides a loping bass groove that would ultimately get nicked by Grandmaster & Melle Mel for the epochal White Lines (Don't Don't Do It) (not to mention a more oblique interpretation in Big Audio Dynamite's The Bottom Line).
The thumb-piano stylings of Scraper recall the band's earlier self-titled EP, where tunes like Groupmegroup and New Walk churned at a more laidback tempo. The band's music - encompassed on but four EPs released in the early 80s on 99 Records - is quite simply essential listening. Famously, James Lavelle issued the first real compilation of the group's material on his Mo Wax imprint, rounding up the band's first three EPs into one essential package with an attractive mosaic sleeve that referenced the evocative 99 artwork of the original 12" records. Released in 1997, it's another example of dance music's dalliance with post punk - well before the retro gold rush of the early 21st century - that grew organically out of the scene's groove fascination in whatever form it came (there was certainly the clear cut abstract hip hop connection). And as I've said before, this is the context through which a certain 90s kid encountered most of this music in the first place.
The other big 99 band were ESG, a group centered around the Scroggins sisters who were merely teenagers when they started out. Famously, their mother had bought them all instruments so that they'd play music rather than get into trouble. I read somewhere that at the time the girls were described as The Supremes meet Public Image Ltd. I can't find the quote now, and I don't know who said it, but it isn't too far off. Their self-titled debut EP is housed in another stunning example of 99 sleeve art and plays out as the quintessential essence of the label's sound, which is in this case somewhat more bare bones than Liquid Liquid's, but somehow no less atmospheric. Moody rides a killer bassline over which the girls chant Very moody, while UFO is like the shower scene from Psycho taken out for a dance.
Interestingly, both songs were crucial building blocks in multiple genres of modern music. UFO, which was sampled by Big Daddy Kane and The Notorious B.I.G. - even showing up much later on J Dilla's Donuts - became something of a staple hip hop signifier (wasn't there a Gang Starr song that sampled it too?), while Moody formed the basis of Murk's Miami house chestnut Reach For Me (released under the name Funky Green Dogs From Outer Space). The girls even titled a later EP Sample Credits Don't Pay Our Bills!, which was released around the time of their unjustly neglected 1991 comeback record. Fortunately, they managed to soak up some love during the post punk revival with two new LPs issued in 2002 and 2006,10 Step Off and Keep On Moving respectively, which were solid records in their own right.
My favorite ESG record, however, is 1983's Come Away With ESG. It's an album-length statement, which means you get to experience the girls' sound in 3D stretched over a cozy 30 minutes. Kicking off with the bluesy tumble of Come Away staggering down some shadowy back alley, the record turns up plenty of uptempo punk funk like Dance, You Make No Sense and The Beat, in which loping bass grooves interlock with rather tactile drums as terse lyrics are chanted over the top. The rushing Chistelle even brings in an eerie guitar line - which appears to get reversed every so often, Detroit techno style - as wind/synth effects creep in and out of the mix, while About You rocks a midtempo groove with the thinnest proto-g-funk synth line imaginable. Of course, there's also the matter of Moody (Spaced Out), a dancefloor version of the original (from their debut EP) which sports a tougher groove and massive synth effects simmering throughout like the soundscapes of Yar's Revenge.
Finally, there's one last New York band I'd like to touch on, and that's the Bush Tetras. While they only put out one 7" on 99 Records (their other two records came out on Fetish), they fit the label's aesthetic perfectly. Tunes like Too Many Creeps and Snakes Crawl consist of composite drum/bass/guitar parts that all interlock into ultra-tight grooves captured with vivid clarity. Cynthia Sley's vocals often recall Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson's spoken parts on the early B-52's records. The brisk turn in Cowboys In Africa (from the Rituals EP) comes on like The Cramps gone funky, while the dubbed out Rituals closes the record on a downbeat note with ragged rockabilly shapes that would fit right into the Repo Man soundtrack. The Things That Go Boom In The Night (the group's final record) tightens up the groove again but this time with a slightly heavier guitar attack - more distortion! - while the b-side Das Ah Riot runs a mad phased guitar part through the track in such a way that seems to tie all three of the group's records together.
Jumping back across the Atlantic for a moment, it's worth noting the Bush Tetras theoretical cousins - and Gang Of Four's sister band - the Delta 5. They debuted in 1979 with the Mind Your Own Business/Now That You're Gone, a conceptual interrogation of relationship dynamics over clockwork straight jacket funk rhythms. The band turned out a series of 7" singles that further developed their taut punk funk sound, even introducing a horn section on Colour, which ultimately culminated in the See The Whirl LP (which I haven't heard). The Singles & Sessions 1979-81 compilation, which I do have, rounds up all the group's singles and augments them with some BBC sessions for good measure.
If the Delta 5 and Gang Of Four represented punk funk at its most jittery in the UK, then the Minutemen cranked things up to a whole other amphetamine-fueled level out in L.A. The group's records are absolutely steeped in sun-baked L.A. atmosphere, in the same way that War's The World Is A Ghetto evoked heatwaves rising from the city's asphalt. In many ways they represented for the gritty underbelly of the city while the Red Hot Chili Peppers were strutting down the boardwalk... some might say that both bands represented two sides of the same coin.
Early EPs like Paranoid Time and Joy were excellent shots of pioneering hardcore, yet there was already a distinctly post punk funk flavor in tracks like More Joy and Joe McCarthy's Ghost that came on like a West Coast, more lived-in Gang Of Four. It's a muscular funk, to be sure, with turn on a dime frenetic rhythms anchored by D. Boon's combative, barked vocals.
The band were one of the mainstays of L.A. institution SST (the home of Black Flag), where they put out a whole brace of records ranging from 12" EPs like Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence Of Heat and Project Mersh to 7" shots like the "Tour Spiel" EP and albums like What Makes A Man Start Fires? and 3-Way Tie (For Last). Double Nickels On The Dime - famously released within months of that other SST post-hardcore milestone double-album Zen Arcade (by Hüsker Dü) - was a tour de force that ran the full gamut of the band's stylistic reach, with hardcore, funk, rock 'n roll, acoustic numbers and even border music all rubbing shoulders over the course of the record's sprawling, monolithic expanse. Without a doubt, it's one of the top ten or so records to truly capture that hazy L.A. atmosphere, and a crucial late-period capstone on the decade's punk funk story just before in mutated into something else entirely.
As such, it brings us full circle to this chapter's beginning, back to L.A., The Red Hot Chili Peppers and where it all ends up in the 90s... with everything tied nicely into a bow. And so I'll leave you with the following playlist, until next time when we descend into the depths of voodoo funk with Material, The Pop Group, The Slits and Public Image Ltd.
TV4 Rockers Revenge
- A Certain Ratio Flight (Factory)
- ESG Moody (Spaced Out) (99)
- Vortex Black Box Disco (Neutral)
- Ian Dury And The Blockheads Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick (Stiff)
- The Contortions Contort Yourself (ZE)
- Minutemen More Joy (New Alliance)
- Gang Of Four Return The Gift (EMI)
- Delta 5 Train Song (Kill Rock Stars)
- Bush Tetras Snakes Crawl (99)
- The Red Hot Chili Peppers Blackeyed Blonde (EMI)
- Iggy Pop African Man (Arista)
- Liquid Liquid Cavern (99)
- Grandmaster Melle Mel White Lines (Don't Don't Do It) (Sugar Hill)
- Bernard Wright Spinnin' (Arista)
- A Certain Ratio Touch (Factory)
- Level 42 Starchild (Polydor)
- Tom Browne Funkin' For Jamaica (N.Y.) (Arista)
- Ian Dury If I Was With A Woman (Stiff)
- Liquid Liquid New Walk (99)
- Gang Of Four Womantown (EMI)
- Defunkt Strangling Me With Your Love (Hannibal)
- The Red Hot Chili Peppers Taste The Pain (EMI)
There exists a particular sound that seems to leap out the speakers in vivid colors, engulfing its surroundings and drawing you into its world. I've come to refer to this as the day-glo sound. There's a four dimensional character to it... you can hear the neon in the air around you. It's something that's captured my imagination from day one, and I've been wanting to pull these records together for some time now. They tend to spring from the intersection of new wave and the dancefloor (at least initially), but in truth you might find them just about anywhere, from rap to techno and machine soul.
The reason I find this particular sound to be crucial is that it manages to spark up brilliant images in the mind's eye even as it throws spectacular shapes across the dancefloor. This is music for the mind, body and soul. It's verdant and full of life, with a four-dimensional depth that's thoroughly engrossing. Indeed, it's no surprise that some of the greatest pop music has keyed into this sound. It's particularily germane to the present moment, and I wouldn't be surprised if it pointed a way out of the quandary music currently finds itself in.
Rather appropriately, we begin our survey at the dawn of the eighties. There are bits and pieces from earlier records that may hint in the general direction, but they ultimately belong to a parallel lineage (one that I plan to discuss sometime next month). It's in the eighties that the day-glo aesthetic truly catches fire, coloring each of these records from the sleeves on down to the sonics held within. In rough chronological order then...
The English Beat - I Just Can't Stop It (U.S. Version)
If we're talking day-glo, then there's no better place to start than with The Beat. Coming from the late-seventies ska revival (as spearheaded by The Specials and their Two-Tone stable of artists), they stand out by virtue of their sumptuous sonic palette. The Specials debut - with its stark black-and-white sleeve design and Elvis Costello's no-frills live-in-the-studio production - was thoroughly monochromatic working week music. From the baleful tenor of Concrete Jungle to the dead-end doldrums of Too Much Too Young, it was packed with no-nonsense photo-realistic documentary reportage.
In contrast, I Just Can't Stop It leaps out the speakers in vivid shades of violet and magenta, like neon lights dancing against the jet black of night. Mirror In The Bathroom, from the production on down, must be one of the most futuristic records ever produced. With five humans locked into the metronomic pulse of Everett Morton's drums and David Steele's creeping basslines, it almost seems to approach a state of machine music in its motorik drive and clockwork precision, with every texture clutching at your ear and pulling you deeper into its world.
You can sense the glitz of disco seeping into the post punk vanguard here,1 cementing the day-glo aesthetic that would color so much of the decade's music. An affinity with Giorgio Moroder's motor-disco, the spangled shapes of Prelude and above all the tropical, dubbed-out sounds of the nascent Island disco output can be felt throughout. The music spread across the entirety of this LP seems to exude a balmy glow, practically defining the word vibrant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it remains one of my absolute favorite pure pop records of all time.
D-Train - You're The One For Me
This is the point where post-disco morphs into eighties electro-boogie (see also Kleeer/Universal Robot Band, along with everything going down in Minneapolis at the time). You're The One For Me maintains the metronomic linearity of disco, lacking the top-heavy verticality of eighties electrofunk, but its machine rhythms do bear a striking resemblance to those of the electro boom looming on the horizon. James Williams' soaring vocals swoop and glide over spangled synthetic shapes, wired into that central electronic groove, while Hubert Eaves III (the man behind the seventies jazz funk tile Esoteric Funk) gets busy on the keys. The instrumental version even begins with a liquid synth figure that sounds like loose wires shooting electricity across the third rail, kicking off a wild subway ride into the depths of the New York night.
Indeed, the whole Prelude aesthetic sits comfortably within the day-glo realm, from the rambunctious electronic shapes of The Strikers' Body Music, shifting and burning over tight mechanical rhythms, to the more organic sounds of Empress' Dyin' To Be Dancin', still firmly grounded as they are in the rules of disco proper. Much of it has a vivid, compact clarity that seems to predict the architecture of eighties dance, but D-Train's You're The One For Me represents that crucial step forward, heralding a sea change in the way dance records would be constructed. Just compare 1980's Gap Band III to 1982's Gap Band IV, Cameosis to Alligator Woman or even Off The Wall to Thriller!
Associates - Sulk
Another well-documented favorite of mine. It's also another singular pop record shaped in disco's shadow, combined with the arch grandeur of film music in an overwhelming clash of sonics. A definite case where the sleeve really captures the sumptuous moods found within. This music suggests ornate ice sculptures spiralling into the sky, crammed with so much richness of detail that they threaten to come crashing down at any moment, while Billy MacKenzie's shrieks pierce through their crystalline corridors with wild abandon. Every texture seems to pulsate fiercely, wherein unstable elements garland paranoia and raging emotion: this is blacklight affair music.
Songs like It's Better This Way and Skipping careen at a furious pace, seeming to combine euphoria and dread into a single emotion, every surface shimmering like storm clouds caught in a ray of sunlight. Conversely, No and Gloomy Sunday glide along at a more stately pace - with MacKenzie almost seeming to revel in his grief - but are no less overwhelmingly powerful for it. Every corner of the record is imbued with a raging intensity, as if all the colors - shades of blue, green and violet - were burning too bright to last for long. The dreamlike Party Fears Two is something like the embodiment of this sensation.
The CD reissue includes a wealth of bonus material (up there with Fifth Dimension's bonus tracks in terms of enhancing the original album experience), including an astoundingly raw early version of It's Better This Way (titled The Room We Sat In Before) and the moody instrumental Grecian 2000. The former is a splendid showcase for Alan Rankine's guitar finesse, as he strangles strange tangled shapes from his instrument, while the latter is a masterpiece of electronic noir: a captivating post-disco pulse cloaked in a haunting synth refrain, evoking paranoid pursuit through deserted city streets in the dead of night. Needless to say, it's exactly the sort of thing we dig here at The Parallax Room.
Gwen Guthrie - Padlock
The Island disco sound that I'd mentioned in passing while discussing The Beat, was in large part fueled by the inimitable Compass Point All Stars. The All-Stars were a crucial conduit through which both discomix reggae and dubbed-out vibes entered the eighties mainstream, and everything they touched was shot through with lush tropical flavor and a new wave glow. They backed Gwen on her first three albums (Gwen Guthrie, Portrait and Just For You), picking up where they left off with Grace Jones' excellent Island trilogy (Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life).
The Padlock mini-album finds Larry Levan remixing a selection of tracks from Gwen's first two LPs into one extended atmospheric trip. The production here conjures up images of a steamy dancehall bathed in primary colors as viewed through a funhouse mirror, evoking the spirit of Levan's Paradise Garage in its verdant, gently psychedelic atmosphere.2 The abstract machinery of dub remains in full effect throughout, righteously casting this cutting edge post-disco boogie as the head music of the eighties. Just keep in mind, this is the sort of head music that you can't help but dance to.
Tracks like Getting Hot, with those glimmering electronic flourishes spiralling out into infinity, and Peanut Butter, riding atop those insane rolling basslines, both burn with a raw, almost tactile sensuality. Hopscotch appears here in its most minimal version, while the title track (as featured on Parallax Pier) gives you a front-row seat at Club Paradise. When Gwen sings We'll sail away to shores... in Seventh Heaven, backing synths pouring through in a rush of sunlight, it's as if the feeling of pure ecstasy has been captured on wax.
Barbara Mason - Another Man
(West End: 1983)
Soul woman Barbara Mason had a history in the seventies as a no-nonsense truth-talker, rough hewn and down in the nitty gritty, smoldering with hard-won intensity on records like Shackin' Up and Caught In The Middle. Coming out nearly a decade later, Another Man is a sequel of sorts to her ballad She's Got The Papers (I Got The Man), picking up where that tune left off - once the dust had settled on its romantic intrigue - with a humorous tale of infidelity and the realization that she really might not be his type after all.
Another Man has the shadowy, dubbed-out flavor you'd expect from a West End record, but it's wired to a cutting edge electroid groove that seems to be infused with hot pink liquid neon. Like D-Train's You're The One For Me, it's another killer late-period record from a disco powerhouse label that seems to cavort with electro in the half-light, laying out a blueprint for the future in the process. Notorious B.I.G. later used its sleek, depth-charging groove as the basis for his hit record Another, but trust me - you need to hear the original tune in all its glory.
Mtume - Juicy Fruit
The title track is rightly celebrated as a masterpiece of atmospheric machine soul (especially The After 6 Mix (Juicy Fruit Part II) version), while its striking music video perfectly captures the whole aesthetic on showcase tonight: day-glo and neon burning in the twilight. The florid magenta hues of those jackets they're wearing on the sleeve give you the first clue as to the vibes found within. Fog hangs over late night city streets bathed in neon. Cars creep in slow-motion by while the sounds of the corner disco seep out into the wider world, coloring the evening of the passers by.
This is post-disco funk music, fueled by rubberband basslines and twilight atmosphere (it's after six), cutting edge for its time it remains a pungent sound full of possibilities in the present. From Green Light's nimble, sure-footed boogie to the low key sway of Ready For Your Love, the group slide from dancefloor to bedroom with impeccable finesse. It all flows together so naturally, even as they take you to some unexpected places along the way (Hip Dip Skippedabeat is an electrofunk monster with a proto-rap that - in a strange twist of fate - recalls Lightnin' Rod's Hustlers Convention), that you can't help but get caught up in their moonlight vision. Without a doubt one of the great funk LPs of its era.
Wally Badarou - Chief Inspector
(4th & Broadway: 1985)
Compass Point's main keyboard man Wally Badarou strikes solo with an instrumental excursion that bravely expands on the groundwork laid out by the earlier Compass Point records, meshing lush jungle atmospherics with the power grid of the city. It's a rather astonishing tune to drop smack in the middle of the eighties, as it seems to predict whole swathes of the next decade's beat-oriented music even as it remains grounded in the gloriously lush post-disco climes of its day. The best of both worlds, in other words.
The original version - from his 1984 LP Echoes - was excellent, but the Vine Street mix on this 12" takes it to a higher plane altogether. When the verse's sleek groove unfolds into that insouciant low key moonwalk during the chorus - synths bathed in hypnotic half-light - it's as if you're gliding three feet above the ground. That it was released on 4th & Broadway is a perfect touch, as this was the label that would deftly navigate post-disco waters in the interzone between hip hop and house (charting the emergence of swingbeat and trip hop along the way). Rather appropriate for a record that plays like a roadmap to the future.
Keni Stevens - Night Moves (Ultra-Sensual Mix)
The original version, firmly of-its-era modern soul, gets stretched and spaced-out into timelessness by Andy Sojka (owner of Elite Records), Chris Madden and Keni Stevens himself at The Madhouse. The Ultra-Sensual Mix flows from its vocal to instrumental version flawlessly, recalling the low key half-lit brilliance of Lowrell's Mellow Mellow Right On when that tune memorably stretched out into its extended instrumental coda.
The central groove has been stripped down to an ultra-light frame and rebuilt like a graceful aero-glider, with not one element out of place. This has always struck me as something of a sister record to Barbara Mason's Another Man, those same sleek machine shapes grooving gently in the shadows. Yeah, I've gone on before about its rolling deep blue vectors bathed in moonlight, and yeah it's something of a touchstone around these parts; it's still a tremendous record. Paradise and polygons, you're in the grid now.
Model 500 - Night Drive
Early Detroit bizzness, which finds Juan Atkins picking up where he left off with Cybotron and No UFO's, venturing even deeper into nocturnal atmosphere and dubbed-out electronic shapes. Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) is surely one of the key records of eighties. It's just perfect, with Atkins' narration riding atop an elegant, starkly minimal electroid groove.
He's bombing up and down deserted Detroit streets, encountering strange freaks and existential loneliness in the darkness. That beat, a perfection of the electro structure, glides along like a rebuilt street racer. The vessel is cast deep blue on black, rushing past in luminescent streaks on the highway, everything bathed in scattered rays of unnatural moonlight. You're feeling the dread in that bassline, tronix swooping and rising like sparks over shimmering synth surfaces in otherworldly harmony, and your hands slowly tighten on the wheel...
Lola - Wax The Van
(Jump Street: 1987)
Late eighties post-disco action produced by Bob Blank (of Blank Tape Studios), with the fingerprints of one Arthur Russell in evidence throughout. Certainly many other Russell tracks could qualify here - the cavernous shapes of Dinosaur L's Corn Belt and Indian Ocean's madly abstract Treehouse/School Bell spring to mind immediately - but this one's low key brilliance sits most comfortably among present company. Its swirling texture and slow-motion groove seem to evoke the feeling of floating underwater,3 and as is usually the case when Russell is involved, that water is gonna be deep (inna Larry Heard stylee).
Every texture pulses, throbbing against that gently chugging rhythm like unsteady electrical current running through a wavering light bulb. Think early Carl Craig, particularly the gaussian blurred strokes of his Retroactive and Psyche/BFC material, but here everything is vivid and hyper-textured. Lola Blank's untamed vocals burst in and out of the mix as if she were inhabited by different personalities, while Arthur Russell does his inimitably subtle backing vocal thing (see also Loose Joints' Is It All Over My Face) throughout, poised just on the edge of the mix and weaving around Lola's breezily captivating lead to satisfyingly hypnotic effect.
Virgo - Virgo
Such a beautiful record, filled with the most absorbing house music you could imagine, made simply and elegantly by two Chicago kids armed with not much more than a DX-7 synth and a TR-707 drum machine. The Virgo album is essentially an expansion on the Ride EP, doubling the tracklist and stretching out into a thoroughly engrossing, immersive sonic trip. Sure, the gorgeous sleeve gives tantalizing clues as to the sounds held within, but dropping the needle on the record still never fails to take my breath away.
Do You Know Who You Are?, cloaked in lush synths cast in deep aquamarine, throws smooth shapes at placid angles off the clubhouse walls; it's as if you've passed through a door into the backroom and wound up on the far side of the galaxy. Tracks like In A Vision and Ride persist on a course through deep space, with luminescent textures routed through a hall of mirrors, cascading gently into infinity.
Starting with Ride, a handful of songs feature murmured vocals, feeling like a soft-focus take on what Jamie Principle had been up to during the preceding four or five years, placing sensitive, introspective men among the machines. Here, the duo fade into the mix like ghostly apparitions. All The Time is one such moody burner (vocals glide over the shifting ocean surface, locked onto the horizon), while Never Want To Lose You has the duo sneaking Bowie-esque into the foreground while an uncredited female vocalist intones acid house phrases like move your body! and listen to that beat!.
This lush machine soul reaches its twin peaks in both Going Thru Life - with those cascading synths and stark piano lines in spiral orbit over the deepest bassline you could imagine - while the warm geometric pulses of School Hall anchor a touching missive that surpasses even Kraftwerk's Computer Love in teaching machines to cry. There's this recurring moment when everything stops and the bassline just hangs there for a second - in suspended animation - before dropping back into the mix in a tumble of tones... oh man, it's one of my favorite things in the world.
Open House - Keep With The Pace
(Nu Groove: 1990)
More prime deep house, this time from New York's Mark Wilson. The whole Nu Groove aesthetic fits snugly within this realm (things like Rhythm Masters, The Sound Vandals and Bobby Konders' records spring to mind immediately). In fact, I often think that Nu Groove picked up on what the Compass Point All Stars had done and ran with it, bringing it into the nineties with their singular, multifaceted take on deep house. It's a sound that folds disparate strands of dub reggae, hip hop and r&b into its digital disco, offering up a definitive New York take on house music and a crucial stepping stone into the next decade.
Go directly to the New York Mix. Every surface is immaculate: that rolling bassline rides a gliding, shuffling rhythm with impeccable finesse, while underwater synths pulse deep in the background (making it feel something like a distant cousin to Wally Badarou's Chief Inspector). That oceanic synth - springing as it does from deep within the mix - certainly helps strengthen the comparison, sounding strikingly similar to the one rolling beneath long stretches of Badarou's track. Tons of tones tumble in and out of the ether, scattered against light reflected off the cityscape, as all surrounding entities are submerged into the deep. Shimmering and aquatic, this is underwater music for real.
The Future Sound Of London - Accelerator
(Jumpin' & Pumpin': 1991)
The next node in the sequence brings us to the UK. So appropriate that this follows, as I've often thought that Dougans and Cobain's early records owe a huge debt to not only the Nu Groove aesthetic but also Compass Point's: they wired that same verdant, kaleidoscopic atmosphere into rave's kinetic breakbeats and the stark futurism of Detroit. This is where the two meet. A definite cyberpunk flavor can be felt throughout, with shades of Cabaret Voltaire lurking between the cracks and of course Buggy G. Riphead's gorgeous artwork remaining a key period signifier. The Blade Runner vibes are most apparent in the shades of paranoia threaded throughout the record, and also in tracks like Moscow and Central Industrial, with the duo living up to their chosen name.
Accelerator is the culmination of all their early records, released under names like Humanoid, Mental Cube and Indo Tribe (indeed, many of these tracks had already appeared in various forms on the four volumes of The Pulse EPs). The opening track, Expander, rolls in on clouds of foreboding before dropping into a loose breakbeat groove, the unstable synth notes of the chorus spiralling out into crimson swirls. On the flipside, Central Industrial closes the record with a staggering downbeat rhythm, each and every texture piercing into the darkness like an early prototype of the duo's Yage visions. In between lies all manner of magic, from the freewheeling calypso shapes of Stolen Documents (yet another track that seems to recall Badarou's Chief Inspector) to the sumptuous shades of While Others Cry, with its uncredited vocals seeming to connect literally to the tropical flair of Compass Point.
A key ingredient running through many of the tracks is a riverbed of percussion lying just below the surface, placed within dubbed-out caverns of echo (see tracks like It's Not My Problem and 1 In 8),4 while another is the near-constant stream of subspace breakbeats threaded through a 4/4 techno beat-matrix. Tracks like Calcium and Pulse State unveil shimmering vistas, hypnotic swirls of sound painted in vibrant color against Monet-like skies. These are some of the album's deepest moments, during which FSOL perfect a sort of rolling, filmic techno, as if a perpetual motion machine's course had been charted into the sunset.
Then there's the matter of Papua New Guinea, which rides a slice of gently unfurling breakbeat magic over a bassline lifted from Meat Beat Manifesto's Radio Babylon, prefiguring the path of rampant sampladelia the duo would engage in for the remainder of the decade. Further related capers can be found on its 12" single, with an excellent Dub Mix and the Journey To Pyramid version in particular shot through with the vivid colors of a certain day-glo psychedelia.
Lovewatch - Wake It Up
The one you want is Guido's Aquasonic Ice Rink Dub. Check that bassline, the awesome DX-100 bass sound that graced hundreds of records from the era, sparring with the nagging refrain of an after hours organ emerging in violet shades from the darkness. The vocal version is no less special, with the presence of an uncredited dancefloor diva wailing defiantly against the track's sumptuous nocturnal backdrop.
I still remember stumbling upon this record at an indispensable thrift shop (whose name eludes me) that once existed down the street from the Clairemont Library back when I worked there after school. The place was a goldmine of dance and hip hop promos that had apparently been shed by local DJs in an effort to pare down their collections. I used to drop by every Thursday during my lunch break and pull loads of killer garage and rap cuts for next to nothing, so I've gotta give props to those cats for hooking a young (broke) brother up back in the day.
JT The Bigga Figga - Dwellin' In Tha Lab
(Get Low: 1995)
Lush, melodic Bay Area hip hop. The cognoscenti seem to prefer his earlier Playaz N The Game, but I reckon that this one's his masterpiece. Every surface seems to exude a warm glow as shapes shimmer in the darkness and colors get scattered at random. From the title on downwards, it's as if JT had immersed himself in the studio on a mission to conjure up the most amazingly vibrant sounds possible, smearing the rough-hewn edges of these homespun studio mixes into a sleek flow of rolling machine music. The result is casually psychedelic, but electrofunk tight.
All techno heads must hear Root Of All Evil immediately. Like E-40's In A Major Way, with its astonishing shades of Drexciya atmosphere, this seems to share an affinity with those same plangent computer sonics (via West Coast rap's roots in electro). The drums snap with a quintessential coastal crispness that dates back to the days of Arabian Prince and The Egyptian Lover, while the bass itself seems to melt into the spaces between.
JT's tight flow is augmented here by guest spots from Rappin' 4-Tay and San Quinn, along with other Bay Area luminaries like E-40, Mac Mall and Celly Cell elsewhere on the record, while shadowy figure The Enhancer crops up behind the boards on both Representing and the aforementioned Root Of All Evil. Free-flowing horizontal grooves like Ain't Something Wrong and Bay Area Playaz perfectly capture the feeling of cruising down the 5 as the late afternoon blurs into evening, the world half-lit somewhere between darkness and daylight (like in the movies), while the sun and moon ease onto the horizon at opposite ends of the sky.
Marshall Jefferson - The Animals EP
Glorious technoid house from Chicago original Marshall Jefferson, released on the heels of his Day Of The Onion album but surpassing it in every way. That's a whole mini-category right there... Robert Owens' I'll Be Your Friend and Romanthony's The Wanderer spring to mind immediately. At any rate, I suppose that trilogy sits so comfortably together also because they're each instances of brilliant house artistes operating at the peak of their powers to forge masterful statements of futurist soul. All three of them stone cold classics.
The Horse is a fast-forward house rhythm, 909 snares bouncing everywhere - sparks shooting royal blue into the night, every surface glistening - and evoking the feeling of careening at top speed down the freeway in the middle of the night. The flipside almost sounds like something Kevin Saunderson might have knocked off during the same era - just think of The Dream, or even the E-Dancer remix of Blackwater - with a grinding bassline and rough cut percussion battling in full effect throughout. Pairing these tunes together was a stroke of genius, as the 12" taken as a whole seems to stand astride the twin worlds of house and techno, its unshakeable trancelike shapes shimmering gloriously in the milieu of late-nineties dance.
Luomo - Vocalcity
(Force Tracks: 2000)
Around the turn of the century, the minimal sound of micro-house revealed itself to be one of the leading hotspots in dance music for a spell. In truth, it's a sound that had been bubbling under for the better part of five years, but its sleek, gliding surfaces seemed the perfect sound to take house into the 21st century. Labels like Force Tracks and Kompakt became powerhouses, practically defining the sound in the public imagination.
The form threw up loads of great 12"s and even a handful of excellent albums, but - with the possible exception of Isolée's Rest - this one is my absolute favorite. It's a wholly surreal record that slips and slides through six deeply hypnotic missives of luminescent alien disco, perfectly capturing the state between consciousness and sleep... when dreams can bleed out into reality. Every track lasts ten minutes or longer, gliding on liquid machinery and fixed to the endless horizon, pairing lush machine shapes with seductive (and uncredited) human vocals.
The jazzed-out, three-dimensional electronic chords of Market set the stage, sparring with a squelching bass figure that gradually gains momentum, before swooping into a kinetic groove at the track's midpoint that seems to rearrange itself before your eyes. Getting down to the root of the matter, the flowing motorik drive of The Right Wing is closest thing here to the dubbed out techno of Basic Channel, who without question had a profound influence on the whole micro-house/minimal scene.5
Luomo share a similar mastery of the architecture of atmosphere, and employ it on a shadowy dancefloor half-lit in the moonlight under the stars. My absolute favorite moment, Synkro, is also the record's most spacious, with fathoms deep disco set adrift in a neon haze. Every element so lush that you feel as if you're swimming in its fluid textures as they tumble and cascade over one another. The mix practically defines the term four-dimensional.
Matching the deft play of mood and texture throughout this record is some truly stellar songcraft. Even without its heady production, Tessio would make for an excellent pop song. With the production factored in, the track is quite simply mind-bending, scattering those spongy bass tattoos - that seem to slide and shift gears beneath a clicking rhythm track - all across the soundscape, as two mystery singers engage in a fractal duet. Listening in feels like you're surfing waves of blurred emotion.
Outkast - Stankonia
Throughout their tenure as Atlanta's unofficial hip hop ambassadors, Outkast had traded in verdant shapes and sounds. As far back as ATLiens, and even on their debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, their music always seemed to exude a warm neon glow. Stankonia is the culmination of everything the duo had been up to during the nineties, and finds them descending even deeper into a sort of psychedelic machine soul.
The vibrant technicolor dream of Ms. Jackson is universally known (and deservedly so) - its lush sonic imagery could be heard everywhere at the time - and to this day it remains a masterpiece. The spectre of Prince looms large throughout, not only in Andre 3000's vocal moves but also in the record's dense, multi-faceted synth-led sound. Indeed, songs like Ms. Jackson and Humble Mumble seem imbued with the spirit of Paisley Park.
The electra-glide textures of Zapp, Mtume and Kleeer, are in evidence throughout, laying the groundwork for the next decade's glorious blurring of hip hop, funk and r&b. I'll Call Before I Come gets into undeniable Atomic Dog territory, but Stankonia goes even deeper into the realm of Funkadelic with the twisted psychedelic soul of the title track. Between its Eddie Hazel/Jimi Hendrix guitar figure and that wailing group chant, it conjures the same dread vibes as March To The Witch's Castle and predicts Brain On Drugs a couple years ahead of schedule.
This long, strange trip curdles with Red Velvet's gnarled computer funk and the strung out psychedelic soul of Toilet Tisha, offering a starkly modern update of Superfly for the new millennium. Perhaps nothing sums up the record quite like ?, a strange junglist sketch and the album's shortest track, it's title hovering over these proceedings like a spotlight... hinting perhaps that even to this day, Stankonia remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma: try as you might, you'll never get to the bottom of this one.
Basement Jaxx - Rooty
Seeing these last three records together makes the turn of the century seem like some sort of golden age! Well, I suppose it was, after all. Jaxx's debut Remedy was easily the better record, but its sonics were sourced in wild pitch house and seventies disco (with Rendezvous and Red Alert coming on like turbo-charged Studio 54 gear). Rooty, on the other hand, seemed informed by the new wave eighties (with the duo at the time referring to their sound as punk garage), and moves beyond house into a sort of crazed maximalist boogie (I think they've got the kitchen sink in there somewhere). Which makes it right at home in present company...
Hard-edged tracks like Where's Your Head At (built around a renegade Gary Numan riff) and Get Me Off roll with reckless abandon through the gutters of the red light district, trading in just the sort of sleazy, low-slung glamour that I wish pop could manage to muster in 2016 (although next year will be another story altogether, I'm sure of it... fingers crossed!). Like contemporary Outkast, the duo channel Prince in Breakaway, sounding like a wild fairground ride experienced through a cracked funhouse mirror, while the album-opening Romeo recalls Sheila E. Coming on like Remedy gone freestyle, its squelching synths seem shot through with hot pink liquid neon.
Two years earlier, Jaxx paid tribute to the machine soul moves of Timbaland with U Can't Stop Me, a strung out slice of stop-start machine funk built on an approximation of the man's trademark spidery beat matrix. Circa 2001, it looked like they'd returned the favor, with Timbaland's work on Missy Elliott's 4 My People and The Neptunes' productions for Britney Spears (Toxic, in particular) sounding like dead ringers for the relentless house sound of Basement Jaxx. Golden age is right!
Metro Area - Metro Area
That initial run of Metro Area EPs were excellent, picking up where The Driving Memoirs left off, but introducing an expansiveness to the proceedings and opening up the soundscape considerably. This record is a culmination of those earlier releases, encapsulating a very special time with incredibly crisp, deep production that stands comfortably with the best records of the turn-of-the-eighties era that it's so clearly inspired by. Dan Selzer's stunning sleeve art really captures the mood here, all those half-lit mystery dancefloors out of the past, present and future. I played this one over and over at the time, even if I thought that Morgan Geist's contemporary Moves EP was even better. Now I'm not so sure. This is one of those records that takes a sound previously confined to 12" singles and tucked away on b-sides and gives it room to breathe across an entire double-LP.
The record kicks off with two tracks featuring the tight string arrangements of Kelley Polar. I've always though that Dance Reaction sounded a bit like a long lost dub of Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough. The first record seems to emphasize live musicianship, with everything from piano to terse vocal harmonies and even acoustic guitar embellishing the warm, uncomplicated soundscapes. Piña rides a Latin piano figure before slipping into Spanish guitar for the placid, dreamy coda. Itis Tandoor's live percussion runs through half the tracks here, opening up the sound considerably into a tactile, physical experience.
The string section and live playing give way to gorgeous machine disco on the second record, where things get down and dirty in a moody stylee. Those bright spangled synths take over, bouncing off the nightclub walls all around the listener as if Super Breakout had gone musical. I've always thought that Soft Hoop was this record's quiet masterpiece, that spongy synth sparring with the bassline in chambers of the deep, while Atmosphrique traps the listener in its hall of mirrors with an almost psychedelic play of, you guessed it, atmosphere. The closing Caught Up seems a fusion of both sides of this record, pairing the strings of the Kelley Polar Quartet and a gorgeous piano/organ duet with the rubberband synths and dubbed-out rhythms of the last four tracks in a moving conclusion to a quietly powerful record.
SA-RA Creative Partners - Double Dutch/Death Of A Star
Nearly everything this crew put out would be eligible, but this one's here for a few reasons and they all have to do with the b-side, Death Of A Star (SUPERNOVA). First, those blacklight synths that seem to spray across the track like day-glo champagne, bathing its chanted vocals even as they threaten to take center stage. Second, those guitar trills that seem to recall nothing so much as peak-era Duran Duran, driving the beat before shearing off into the distance. Third, is the energy, the fire and the tune itself - after all, it wouldn't mean anything if it were just a finely executed pastiche - marking it out as one of the tunes of the decade. Conjuring images of some outerrim nightclub nestled among the stars, its cosmic disco spheres orbiting as they cast glimmering lights all across the firmament. Yea, this is another sleeve that perfectly illustrates everything the record's about.
This is the point where the day-glo impulse really came into focus again and began to catch fire underground, culminating in a lot of the best music from the last decade or so. The strung out autotune r&b of Double Dutch (CO CO POPS) predicts the sound of the latter half of the decade, even if I've never been crazy about it. As usual, however, the instrumentals are something special. SA-RA Space Theme is a low-key entry in their line of astral jazz outings - picking up where Herbie Hancock and Dexter Wansel left off - sounding for all the world like Herbie and Sly Stone jamming circa Fresh. Hangin' By A String, on the other hand, comes on like liquid neon, staggering along on a stop-start beat it seems to have been synthesized from unstable, radioactive elements. Part of SA-RA's charm lies in the fact that no one else sounds remotely like them.
Gorillaz - Demon Days
I liked the first Gorillaz record a lot, so at first I missed the dubbed-out vibes of Dracula and Clint Eastwood. I got over it pretty quick though, as this is very much the superior record. What's more, parts of it seemed to key into the machine funk of Kleeer and Mtume... who would have guessed!? Check that synth squiggle in Feel Good Inc., featuring De La Soul in fine form, rough house rhyming over an electroid beat that cuts out just in time for the acoustic Staring At The Sun-esque chorus.
The sound at first seems more stripped down than the first record, but its really just a sleeker, more aero-dynamic approach. Tracks like Kids With Guns (featuring Neneh Cherry) and El Mañana are skeletal tunes built on spartan drum machine rhythms and glistening analogue tones. Opener Last Living Souls is cut from the same cloth, only in slow-motion. All Alone features Roots Manuva doing his bashment thang over roughneck breakbeat riddims and a garage bassline while Martina Topley-Bird swoops in angelic and sublime for the breakdown. The masterful Dirty Harry is that rare track to feature a children's chorus that works, spiralling into electro-funk territory once it really gets going and sounding like a dream version of something from Whodini's Escape. When The Pharcyde's Bootie Brown drops in on the mic for the guest spot, a ragged breakbeat takes over with its grinding bass accompaniment.
Dare is just perfection. Clearly one of the finest songs of the decade, it seems to pick up where the Dazz Band left off before immersing it all in vast cathedrals of sound. The record goes through various twists and turns before ending in a bizarre Brian Wilson hinterland, with Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey's Head featuring Dennis Hopper's narration (recalling old-time radio serials like Escape and The Mysterious Traveller) and the sumptuous Surf's Up moves of Don't Get Lost In Heaven, before swerving into the Rotary Connection-esque Broadway soul of the title track.
Dâm-Funk - Toeachizown
(Stones Throw: 2009)
This double-CD (5xLP!!) album is the perfect distillation of decades of West Coast machine soul, ranging from the rolling basslines of g-funk to the computerized rhythms of electro, taking in the squiggling shapes of Solar Records, boogie and even mysterious shades of straight-up techno for good measure along the way. Every track seems bathed in computer blue moonlight, wired up to neon (literally LAtrifying, as one song puts it) and drifting through a dreamlike haze. It's the perfect soundtrack to those late summer evenings spent cruising the sprawling web of city streets in the south side of California, just as dusk begins to fall, palm trees cycling by in the rear view mirror.
I certainly can't think of a record that better encapsulates the vibe of late afternoons and late nights down here in San Diego. It's the sound of crashing waves, the freeway stretching through rolling hills in burnt sienna and the grid of the city nestled within, the calm heat of the desert hanging wraithlike in the air. It's the sound of late night trips to your favorite taco shop, cruising down El Cajon Boulevard at midnight, or flipping through a stack of Parliament and Zapp records at your homeboy's spot. It's a million different memories all rolled into one, drifting bittersweet and beautiful out of the past like a mirage. For instance, I Gots 2 Be Done Wit' U always takes me back to August of '95 and afternoons spent listening to One Way and Kleeer, soaking up their atmosphere while playing Atari 2600. Later I'd go roller-skating with my brother and our main man Gregory, the day seeming to stretch on forever.
Tracks like Spacecapades and Keep Lookin' 2 The Sky seem to key into a stream of pure techno soul, as if the sounds of Detroit were refracted through the cool water of the Pacific Ocean to sound right at home in the Golden State. In a sense, it sheds some light as to why this music always made perfect sense to me, a kid growing up two-thousand miles away. Parts of this record bring back vivid memories of bombing around San Diego back in the day, listening to Model 500 and Drexciya in the moonlight, taking the longest route home to hear just one more song and stretch the magic out across the electric shades of the evening.
Ryan Leslie - Transition
A wildly inconsistent record, but a fascinating one with an engaging sound, seeming to exist comfortably alongside SA-RA and Dâm-Funk in the context of 21st century machine soul. Its release was tucked away toward the end of a year that had already seen one Leslie LP, his self-titled debut. Transition was apparently inspired by a late-summer romantic affair and knocked out in an off-the-cuff series of sessions. That its release was buried is the only way I can square the fact that it didn't bother the charts with songs like You're Not My Girl and Zodiac, sounding something like the hypothetical album Michael Jackson might have released between Thriller and Bad (circa Kleeer's Intimate Connection and The Isley's Between The Sheets).
Leslie made his name producing Cassie back in 2005, and after a few years he got the chance to launch a solo career of his own. This and the self-title debut came out during a period when I was mainlining on SA-RA and seeking out anything and everything in a similar vein. New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) had just seen release the previous year, featuring tracks produced by SA-RA, and it seemed like something special was in the air. I remember when this and the Kid Cudi album dropped, and I was totally sold on their sleeve art from the jump: this had to be interesting. Actually, the sleeve is not a bad place to start if you're looking for a thumbnail sketch of the sounds held within, conjuring images of deep green vectors unfurling in slow-motion neon.
The album-opening Never Gonna Break Up more than lives up to the anticipation, with Leslie slinging luminescent analogue synths across a gently chugging rhythm while doing his modern soul man routine on vocals. Leslie 's thing is switching between r&b vocals and quasi-raps, which suits his productions just fine. A track like Sunday Night flows gracefully on moody synth swirls, while Nothing trades in almost new wave shapes. The new wave thing is actually in full effect throughout: All My Love even seems to recall New Order in its string/synth progression. The slow-burning post-disco boogie of You're Not My Girl just might be the finest thing here, rolling along on that nagging verse before slipping into its sublime refrain.
Jungle - Jungle
This lot have been the biggest surprise since SA-RA, coming out of nowhere with a killer record that sounds unlike anything else around. I've gone in depth on them before. Not much to add, but I still can't quite believe that they exist... and I don't understand why they aren't the biggest thing around right now. Sari and I have caught them live twice, and both shows were excellent in different ways. I suspect they can make any venue their own, their atmosphere seeps into every corner of the space.
Possibly the first group to spring fully-formed from within the day-glo aesthetic, rather than approaching from a tangent (be it post punk, disco, hip hop or rave). I've said before that they seem to build their songs out of texture as one would sculpt matter: everything here is like day-glo cast in gold and chrome liquid set against jet black skies, where everything glows gently. It would have sounded incredible on the dancefloors of the Paradise Garage, yet it's perfectly at home in the context of now-pop, excelling most of the half-finished ideas that currently set the charts ablaze. This of-the-moment music exists in a continuum stretching back decades... nevertheless it sounds unlike anything that's come before.
Ranging from resolute floor-fillers like Busy Earnin', Time and Julia to moody burners like Accelerator, Drops and Platoon, Jungle imbue everything here with a sense of gravity and physicality. There's a deeply haunting nature running through these atmospheric reveries to the night. In effect, its a stone cold masterpiece. This crew are more than suited to take this sound screaming into the future, and I'm awaiting their next record more anxiously than any other. These are the things that dreams are made of.
This is part one (of two) in a series of loosely interconnected glimpses of the sonic revolution, where righteous protest and sonic exploration meet in time and space...
The resistance started in folk and the blues, stretching from songs like the 17th century Diggers' Song into the fourth decade of the 20th with Leadbelly's Jim Crow Blues, chronicling the ills of their day with a resolute spirit that vowed to one day reach the mountaintop. Some years later, Billie Holiday kicked the door open into the mainstream with Strange Fruit, unmasking the horrors of the Jim Crow south with stark clarity shone right in the media glare. We will no longer be ignored. This spirit coursed through the veins of jazz to come, with Max Roach's We Insist! symbolically ringing in that decade of change with a demand for Freedom Now.
The whole modern folk tradition - which reached critical mass in the early 1960s - seems to stem from this same impulse, summed up in the spirit of a song like We Shall Overcome. It enters the realm of rock 'n roll via Bob Dylan's early records, featuring songs like The Times They Are A Changin' and Blowin' In The Wind, which had a profound impact on the likes of The Beatles and The Byrds. San Francisco's acid rock seemed to split the difference between the two forms (via The Byrds' durable folk rock template and their Fifth Dimension ruminations on John Coltrane), particularly in the case of Jefferson Airplane, who lent songs like We Can Be Together, Mexico and Have You Seen The Saucers a razor sharp tone with a paramilitary edge.
The contemporaneous Wooden Ships, a gentle slice of sun-glazed folk psychedelia written by the Airplane's Paul Kantner in conjunction with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, places two adversaries from an unnamed war alone together on an uninhabited island and marvels at their slow acceptance of one another in a true meeting of the minds. The influence of this sort of West Coast folk psychedelia - blended with The Beatles - could be felt down south in Brazil's Tropicália movement and Argentina's psychedelic underground, and in both instances proved an aggravation to their countries' respective military dictatorships. In a climate of increased militarization and the pitched culture war of the times, Jefferson Airplane's Crown Of Creation seems to run the kaleidoscope of sixties idealism through an apocalyptic prism, offering a glimpse of seventies dread looming out there on the horizon.
This was the backdrop when Jimi Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. Shimmering Hendrix-penned numbers like Castles Made Of Sand, Bold As Love and the phantasm of 1983...(A Merman I Should Turn To Be) seem to paint across the cosmos the image of a world at peace, while the fiery flipside of the man's legacy could be felt entering the crucible of Michigan's factory cities, with the proto-punk onslaught of Detroit's MC5, Ann Arbor's Stooges and the working-class rock 'n roll of Flint's Grand Funk Railroad raising the stakes and turning up the volume. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a cold wind cut through Birmingham as Black Sabbath crawled from the darkness to chronicle a bleaker era of opposition with songs like War Pigs and Wicked World.
Now rewind for a moment to 1960s San Francisco, where Sly & The Family Stone made their glorious run of recordings that embody the spirit of righteous protest, records like A Whole New Thing (featuring the triumphant Underdog) and Stand!, which remains - along with their performance at Woodstock - some of the most life-affirming music you could ever hope to hear. The group exemplified the era's optimism and open-mindedness, with their integrated lineup and singular sound imbued with a driving funk soul spirit that touched on the rock 'n roll attitude of the contemporary San Francisco scene. But in truth, soul's tradition of visionary protest stretches back even further. Sam Cooke famously penned A Change Is Gonna Come in 1964 after hearing Bob Dylan's Blowin' In The Wind, while The Impressions took things even deeper with Curtis Mayfield-penned numbers like Keep On Pushing and People Get Ready. True to spirit, this was empowerment as much as protest - empowerment as protest, even.
James Brown had his own anthem of empowerment in Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud, which caught fire in 1968 and later kicked off a series of of records stretching deep into the seventies, including The Payback, Revolution Of The Mind, Hell and The J.B.'s Damn Right I Am Somebody (the latter two are potent ruminations on the Watergate era, shot through with a deep sense of seventies dread). Brown's righteous on-the-one funk of course had a profound effect on Fela Kuti, the storied revolutionary musician operating in Nigeria out of his Kalakuta Republic, who unleashed records like Roforofo Fight, Expensive Shit and Zombie that remain searing indictments of government corruption and brutality to this day.
Edwin Starr's War seemed to picked up where Sly Stone's driving rock soul workouts left off, with a rousing call to (dis)arm riding a peak-period Norman Whitfield production, while The Chambers Brothers' The Time Has Come offered one of the great signposts of the era with its title track1 - a signpost of rock-inflected soul in a Sly & The Family Stone stylee. All of this was taken to its logical conclusion with the wild seventies excursions of George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic empire, with records like America Eats It Young and Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow sprawling out into a singular acid-fried vision of seventies unrest.
At the dawn of that decade, this impulse went into soul supernova, with Curtis Mayfield's eponymous solo debut - featuring the triumphant Move On Up - and the subsequent Curtis/Live!, its extended reflections on the troubles of the world matched by Mayfield's graceful determination. Something special happens when songs like We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue, We're A Winner and I Plan To Stay A Believer mix with his gentle between-song banter, and you can glimpse a beautiful future in the record's grooves. It's the sound of hope in the face of hard times, digging deep to Keep On Keeping On and trying to somehow make the world a better place.
Marvin Gaye picked up the baton with What's Going On, a glorious song cycle that captured the mood of the day in elegiac style, opening the door at Motown for Stevie Wonder's stunning sequence of seventies records. Check out Innervisions, with the rough and tumble stomp of Living For The City - capturing a gritty slice of urban life in its tough seven minutes - and the gorgeously plaintive Visions, a song that dares to envision a world in which hate's a dream and love forever stands. Former Temptation Eddie Kendricks continued this thread with the hypnotic chant My People... Hold On, a resolute march to empowerment, while back in Chicago, Syl Johnson hit hard in 1970 with Is It Because I'm Black. Featuring the melancholic strains of title track and the majestic grandeur of Concrete Reservation and I'm Talkin' Bout Freedom, it was a record that bubbled deep underground before gradually picking up its richly deserved recognition as a stone cold classic.
Just as everyone seemed to have caught up with where he was going, it seemed that Sly Stone's relentless positivity had curdled into a mystified haze at the turn of the decade.2 He took a left turn into the downbeat with There's A Riot Goin' On, a weary entrance into the seventies - especially after the previous year's wild funk 7" Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) - that seemed to signal a sea change in the tenor of the times. From the weary Philly soul of The O'Jays' marathon epic Ship Ahoy (which lasts the better part of ten minutes) to Eugene McDaniels' staggering Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse,3 there were a great many complex soul records that grappled with the demons of the day in unflinching detail.
This was the context from which the bubbling of the sharp, gritty poetry of The Last Poets' debut record - along with ex-member Gylan Kain's scorching The Blue Guerrilla - sprung, both pervaded with a fire-stoked revolutionary fervor informed by the harsh realities of life in the shadow of COINTELPRO. Similarly, Nikki Giovanni's The Truth Is On Its Way - with Ego Tripping's shades of female empowerment - was a sharp-tongued verbal strike in step with the times. Gil Scott-Heron, with partner in crime Brian Jackson, had the longest - and arguably most fruitful - run, unleashing a breathtaking series of records - including Winter In America and Pieces Of A Man (featuring the incendiary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised) - throughout the seventies. Theirs was a music - along with The Last Poets, Kain and Giovanni - drenched in soul and low-slung funk, but more than anything was shot through with the spectre of jazz.
Jazz, that enduring edifice, was of course still going strong. John Coltrane had already chronicled transcendence and laid the blueprint for astral jazz, which was later elaborated on by his wife Alice Coltrane and former sideman Pharoah Sanders in expansive indo jazz excursions like World Galaxy and Black Unity, respectively. All of this ran parallel to Sun Ra's empire building (in fact, Pharoah Sanders had played with Ra even before hooking up with Coltrane's quintet), his independent Saturn Research label and mind-expanding records like The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra and Space Is The Place (the birth of an enduring sentiment that stretched into the nineties and beyond). Figures like Ornette Coleman (with his symphonic Skies Of America record), Don Cherry (responsible for the intriguingly amorphous Organic Music Society) and Marion Brown (whose Vista LP featured a cover version of not only Harold Budd's Bismillahi 'Rrahman 'Rrahim, but also Stevie Wonder's Visions) continued chronicling the spirit of the times even as they voyaged deeper into innerspace.
Similarly, Carlos Santana's continual focus on transcendence had resulted in a series of lush jazz-tinged records spanning the decade (he even collaborated with John McLaughlin and Alice Coltrane), bridging the gap between Woodstock and Montreux in the process. Herbie Hancock cut a similar path through the seventies, with his band adopting Swahili names in the wake of their thrust into cosmic jazz with records like Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant. Around this time, he also provided the score to the film The Spook Who Sat By The Door, with its revolutionary theme echoing shades of his earlier material like The Prisoner (and prefiguring the direction of his funky Headhunters-era material). Hancock's lush jazz mosaics of the Mwandishi period delved deep into abstraction, engaging with the mind's eye as much as any literal interpretation or meaning. The music seemed to be charting other worlds, mapping their terrain, and opening up the possibilities that they offered.
This spirit found embodiment in Krautrock. A record like Can's Future Days is immersed in the oceanic depths of Inner Space (incidentally, also the name of their studio), while Neu!'s motorik pulse seems eternal - locked onto the infinite horizon. Neu! '75 even predicts the second half of the decade in the proto-punk onslaught of Hero and After Eight. Similarly, Faust's ragged spliced-tape adventures seemed to preempt the experimentation of post punk even as they revelled in a sing it all together now communal spirit, while Amon Düül II sprung from an honest-to-goodness commune. Over in France, Heldon's electronic assaults were informed by a militant spirit (indeed, Richard Pinhas was at the barricades in Paris during the student uprising of 1968) that pervaded atmospheric records like Électronique Guerrilla and Agneta Nilsson. All of this is heavy textural music that transcends literal statement to commune directly with the mind's eye, weaving the fabric of space and time into a stirring sonic tapestry.
Across the Atlantic, the reggae sounds of Jamaica were steeped in a similar expansiveness, most famously in the music of Bob Marley And The Wailers - and later in Peter Tosh's stalwart militant anthems and the spiritual sustenance of Bunny Wailer's recordings - but reaching a sublime peak in Burning Spear's self-titled debut and Junior Byles' immaculate Beat Down Babylon. Songs like Creation Rebel and Beat Down Babylon embody a spirit of perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds, offering visions of a better world in opposition to the surrounding harsh reality.
This path stretches deeper and deeper into the realm of atmosphere as the decade advances. One need look no further than the saga of Declaration Of Rights, a story stretching from The Abyssinians' steadfast original to the depth charging bass of Johnny Clarke's cover version (produced by Bunny Lee and mixed by King Tubby), culminating in the cavernous dub shadows of King Tubby's Declaration Of Dub version. This is music that you feel in your chest when it takes hold. Figures like Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry tore up the very fabric of sound in search of new potentials, spooling them out into three dimensions. It's no surprise that King Tubby's studio and Perry's Black Ark often invite comparisons to sonic laboratories or starships.
A record like Dadawah's sprawling Peace And Love used the techniques of dub to create a heady psychedelic trip steeped in Rastafari, spread across four extended grooves, while Fred Locks's roots-informed Black Star Liner (a reference to Marcus Garvey's historic Black Star Line) reveled in dense imagery, with the dread vibes of Walls evoking the plight of the concrete jungle. On a similar tip, Prince Far I's Heavy Manners chronicled life under marshal law in the run up to Jamaica's national elections. This is a list that could go on and on, from Max Romeo's War Ina Babylon to The Mighty Diamonds' Right Time, all of it contributing to a rich legacy of righteous protest and sonic exploration.
It's a legacy that sets up the next leg of our journey: at the cusp of 1977, that year when two sevens would clash, and everything would change...
Space. The vastness of which we cannot even begin to comprehend. The crew of the Apollo 13 mission traveled farther into it than any human ever has - 248,655 miles - during their improvised orbit of the moon. By way of comparison, the Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 light years across... that's 600,000,000,000,000,000 miles! And then there's the rest of the universe out there... Hubble gives us a deeper view into it, but we're still talking about just the tip of the iceberg.
Outer space has long been a perennial obsession of mine, and one that I've indulged in freely for the first half of 2016. It kept me going for what you might call a transitional period in my life, during which I aimed to get back to the core of what inspired me to get out there and do my thing in the first place. For that stretch, the Parallax Room became a starship with which to survey the outer reaches of the cosmos through the lense of sonic exploration. The objective was to pull together a brace of records from the Parallax stacks that cleave to space as a theme, revelling in it's vastness of possibility.
The initial plan back in January was to compile a list of twenty records and post the results up here within a week, but it quickly grew far beyond those modest parameters. It expanded well past 120 before reason prevailed and I started cutting some of the more peripheral ones (and a few pretty tough calls too), rounding the list down to an even 100. I did manage to keep an alternate listing of all the records that nearly made it, so I might toss those up here at some point as a footnote. At any rate, I'd love to hear from you about any records that you think I may have missed... I'm always up for a brand new sonic excursion!
This list is the culmination of the past six months spent in the outer reaches of deep space. Each of these records is a chapter in the story of music's dalliance with the cosmos, tracing a fascination with the stars through the 20th and beyond. Whatever the current constraints may be with respect to space travel, there's practically no limit to the human imagination. And so, our journey begins, in loose chronological order:
1. Gustav Holst - The Planets
(RCA Red Seal: 1916/1977)
Surely any discussion of music's obsession with space must start with Holst? I grew up hearing this from both my grandfather, who was a classical devotee, and pops himself. Subsequently it was one of the first classical records I ever picked up on. Note also that in 2016 its planetary scope is once again scientifically accurate, as Pluto - which had not yet been discovered when Holst was writing The Planets - is no longer classified as a planet.
2. Louis and Bebe Barron - Forbidden Planet: Original MGM Soundtrack
Early on, space - and electronic - music were largely the preserve of cinema (see also Bernard Herrmann's use of theremin in The Day The Earth Stood Still). Famously credited as electronic tonalities to circumvent the film industry's music guild regulations, this score had far-reaching implications, in effect cementing the connection between the theme of space and the sounds of electronic music in the public imagination. After all, visions of the final frontier surely must be accompanied by sounds from another world! So strange was the soundtrack in its own time that it wasn't released as a standalone record until the mid-seventies.
3. The Tornados - Telstar
Landmark Joe Meek production, inspired by the launch of the Telstar communications satellite in 1962. Using the MO of surf rock as its launching pad, this is in essence the birth of space rock. What is Pink Floyd's Interstellar Overdrive if not a freaked out update of this racing, space-age rock 'n roll? Gleaming possibilities of a radiant future are in evidence throughout (just check the sleeve!).
4. The Ventures - The Ventures In Space
The Ventures had already covered Telstar on the previous year's The Ventures Play Telstar, but here they stretch the space theme across a whole LP. Containing their own space/surf rock masterpiece Out Of Limits, this record also boasts a cover of The Twilight Zone theme! You can hear the basis of The Plugz' Reel Ten and the whole sci-fi aspect of the Repo Man aesthetic played out here (with Tarantino's later use of Out Of Limits in Pulp Fiction, well it stacks up doesn't it?). I was recently pleased to discover that this was one of my brother Matt's favorite albums of all time.
5. The Byrds - Fifth Dimension
A Parallax 100 record. Inspired by Coltrane and Shankar in equal measure, this is - as far as I can tell - the birth of acid rock. The absolutely epochal Eight Miles High is the centerpiece, its ominous bass, freefall rhythms and Roger McGuinn's quicksilver guitar solo clearly transmuting those earlier stabs at space rock - coming from the surf - into a wild freeform psychedelia. The Byrds at this point enjoying a reputation as space rockers, and in a contemporary radio interview (featured on the expanded CD reissue of 5D) David Crosby and Roger McGuinn talk at length about extraterrestrial life, hoping that radio transmissions of their songs might be heard by aliens who would ultimately take them up for a ride in their spaceship!
6. John Coltrane - Interstellar Space
Speaking of Coltrane, this wild posthumous release is something of a sister record to Sun Ship (my absolute favorite free jazz record of all time), taking that record's unfettered percussive drive to it's logical conclusion (Rashied Ali picking up drum duties from Elvin Jones this time out). Both records are brilliant stone tablets of deep space astral jazz. Parts of this could even accompany the deafening silence of the murder scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Frank Poole's tumble into the void of space.
7. Morton Subotnick - Silver Apples Of The Moon
Two extended movements spread across both sides of this pioneering electronic record (the first to sell in serious numbers, in fact). One of Subotnick's great innovations was to build up rhythmic repetition from electronic sounds (which before then had largely been confined to the freeform, abstract context of academia). Think about that for a second: tracing that concept through Kraftwerk and Moroder and up to the present day... well, there's no getting around its centrality to modern music. It's crucial!
Here, Subotnick wrings otherworldly sounds from the Buchla modular synthesizer, with Part 1 largely an excursion through wandering tones while Part 2's mid-section coalesces into a frenetic rhythmic thrust. Everything here thoroughly abstract and alien.
8. Various Artists - 2001 A Space Odyssey: Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack
The proverbially good science fiction film. Stanley Kubrick famously used large swathes of modern classical recordings as guide music during the film's production, and then ultimately chose to continue using them in the final cut rather than the original score prepared by Alex North. Perhaps nothing at the time could match the otherworldly sounds of Strauss, Ligeti and Khachaturian, which lend further gravity to a singular, spellbinding film, running the gamut from primate battles on Earth to space stations in orbit and an expedition to the far side of Jupiter (Beyond The Infinite).
9. 101 Strings - Astro-Sounds From Beyond The Year 2000
Easy-listening orchestra 101 Strings veers off into the strange. After all, it was the sixties! There's no getting around that this one's something of a cash-in on both 2001 and psychedelia, a concession to the heads in an attempt to shift a few extra units. You can see the equations being drawn up: space x psychedelica = hippie $$$! Nevertheless, this contains moments of pure dread like Flameout, those searing strings and proto-hip hop breaks provide a menacing background for demented acid-fried guitar lines to wander freely.
I was surprised to be unable to recall any earlier space-themed exotica operating at the album level. Surely I missed something!? At any rate, this will do.
10. Michael Czajkowski - People The Sky
(Vanguard Cardinal: 1969)
More sixties electronica with its eyes fixed firmly on the stars. In its deeply rhythmic drive, that synthetic almost-percussion, you can hear pre-echoes of Herbie Hancock's Nobu and beyond. Space colonization, for years on the back burner, has returned to discussion recently with science-fiction films like Interstellar and The Martian. In retrospect, it must have seemed a foregone conclusion in 1969.
11. Pink Floyd - Ummagumma
If you're talking the cosmos, there's no getting around this bunch who are - in the popular imagination - the premier space rockers. My vote goes to this double-album, the live disc of which takes prime Barrett-era numbers like Astronomy Domine, A Saucerful Of Secrets and Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun into the deep black of space.
The studio disc draws the group as far away from traditional rock forms as they would ever travel, working with textures and treated instruments to stretch the boundaries of their individual compositions into the realm of pure atmosphere.
12. Jefferson Airplane - Mexico/Have You Seen The Saucers
(RCA Victor: 1970)
The standard-bearers of acid rock enter the space race. In truth, they'd dabbled even earlier with Crown Of Creation's Star Track, but this double a-side single takes matters to another level altogether in what might be the band's finest moment. Paul Kantner's Have You Seen The Saucers ties together alien contact, government conspiracy and ecological concerns all in the space three-and-a-half minutes of cinematic high-desert psychedelia.
13. Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship - Blows Against The Empire
(RCA Victor: 1970)
Kantner ascends further into the cosmos with this concept album that follows a band of counter-culture militants (who bear a striking resemblance to Jefferson Airplane) as they hijack a starship and set course for some distant planet to start a new life on.
Theoretically, this is the first Jefferson Starship tile to drop, but we're still a long way from We Built This City. The core of the record's sound lies in piano led, spaced-out acid folk. There's a blink-and-you-might-miss-it masterpiece in Sunrise, with powerful, bewitching vocals from the inimitable Grace Slick. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the droning guitar soundscapes that Richard Pinhas would later explore in Heldon, and is about as intense a two-minutes as you could ask for.
14. UFO - UFO 1
Before they were arena rockers, this group forged a motorik form of no-frills space rock distilled down to its purest essence. With graphics that had people thinking they were Krautrockers, this sleeve always makes me think of the card game Space Age Slap Jack.
Maybe no one remembers this? It featured similarly-styled artwork, evoking a desolate seventies sense of outer space. I had a deck as a kid back in the eighties, and only recently tracked one down again. I'd often dream of launching into the stars aboard some cramped starship, never to see home again. Digital readouts glowing in sharp red and green as the Earth shrinks in the distance.
15. Captain Beyond - Captain Beyond
West Coast space rock. Captain Beyond featured former members of Iron Butterfly, Deep Purple and the Johnny Winter band, who coalesced in early-seventies Los Angeles and hung around through most of the decade (and frequent personnel changes) for a series of three albums. This one is the first, and also the best. Large swathes of the record run together, moving through a series of shifting suites while the band slide between crunchy hard rock and ethereal astral reveries like the shimmering Myopic Void (a cosmic bolero of sorts). One of the great unsung American hard rock LPs, it should be more widely known.
16. Khan - Space Shanty
Canterbury prog on the outer space tip, this is the dense, complicated flipside to the West Coast almost-prog of Jefferson Starship and Captain Beyond. Built atop the foundation of Nick Greenwood's throbbing bass and Eric Peachey's zero-gravity breaks, the soundstage is dominated by both Dave Stewart's intricate organ runs and muscular guitar fretwork from the great Steve Hillage. I've often wondered whether Leftfield's Space Shanty had anything to do with this album...
17. Alice Coltrane with Strings - World Galaxy
Pure, majestic indo-jazz from Lady Coltrane. This is outer space music, featuring a lush orchestra in freeform orbit, stretching out across a vast widescreen canvas. Containing her mind-blowing, breakbeat-led version of A Love Supreme and the breathtakingly cinematic Galaxy In Satchidananda, this is Coltrane at her absolute peak, locked into the cosmic and moving galaxies. Truly indispensable.
18. Tangerine Dream - Zeit
The previous year's Alpha Centauri would also apply, but this one remains my favorite of the early Tangerine Dream records. With four long tracks spread across four sides of a gatefold double-album, these droning soundscapes stretch out and swirl before you in ponderous slow-motion like a vortex in the darkness, as chilling and vast as outer space itself.
19. Vulcans - Star Trek
Early prog/space instrumental reggae cash-in, this remains worthwhile for its bizarre origins and brazenly unique sonic palette. Bathed in the swampy textures of the Moog synthesizer, it rides a crazed off-kilter skank through a comic book vision of the cosmos. Inspired in part by the television show of the same name, the proceedings slowly devolve into references to Dracula and other denizens of the strange.
20. Sun Ra - Space Is The Place
Space jazz from the greatest purveyor of the form. Hard to choose just one Sun Ra record, in fact this list could be dominated by appearances from the man - records like The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra, Cosmos and Strange Celestial Road - but this soundtrack for his sprawling motion picture of the same name fits the most snugly within present company. An extraordinarily bizarre film, it infuses space exploration with Egyptology and more than a hint of seventies conspiracy dread, projecting the spirit of its time onto the stars.
21. Herbie Hancock - Sextant
Further adventures in space jazz. This could have been recorded yesterday. The machine loops running through Rain Dance play out like an alien encounter, while Hidden Shadows seems to approximate the feeling of weightlessness. Robert Springett's cover painting, with its lunar surface looming in the fiery night sky, is probably my favorite sleeve of all-time.
22. Hawkwind - Space Ritual
(United Artists: 1973)
Spaced out biker rock. This sprawling double-live set captures the band's wild stage show, featuring elaborate lightworks, nude dancers and spoken word interludes by Robert Calvert (with passages quoted from the science fantasy author Michael Moorcock), all backed by the band's Dionysian brand of wild space rock. Songs like Time We Left This World Today and Orgone Accumulator emerge from the ether of extended atmospheric interludes, with the full tilt rock 'n roll assault of Master Of The Universe seeming to blast through the stratosphere with a relentless booster-rocket drive.
23. Brainticket - Celestial Ocean
(RCA Victor: 1973)
I took a chance on this one back in the day based on the incredible sleeve, which is actually different from the (equally stunning) original. Another node on the Egypt/space axis, its hieroglyphs set in stark relief against the backdrop of what looks like an interplanetary starship.
The sounds within are equally compelling... strange cargo indeed. You get lost in the deep texture of those rolling electronic sequences while sitars, percussion and acoustic guitars weave throughout. I've always been surprised that this record isn't more widely praised, indeed I've only ever seen the band's earlier Psychonaut garner the occasional mention in Krautrock discussions.
24. The Cosmic Jokers - The Cosmic Jokers
(Kosmische Musik: 1974)
Incidentally, I picked this up on the same day as Celestial Ocean (something like twelve/thirteen years ago?). Featuring telepathic interplay between Kosmische luminaries like Klaus Schulze and Manuel Göttsching, this is a headfirst plunge into liquid inner/outer space. I only later discovered that it was the first in a series of five records, famously compiled from source tapes of endless jams without the musicians' knowledge! Still, a perfect record.
25. Gong - You
More pyramids, this time by way of Central America. There's just no getting around Daevid Allen's gang when discussing space music. Gong started out essentially expanding on Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd's pioneering work in the field, before gradually veering into a sort of spaced out jazz fusion under the tutelage of Pierre Moerlen (ultimately leading to Allen's departure from his own group after this album). You exists at the point of intersection between those two universes of sound, with its freeform jazz-tinged psychedelia illuminated by the liquid guitar figures of Steve Hillage.
26. Billy Cobham - Total Eclipse
Dating back to its origins, fusion had its own fascination with the cosmic (signposted by records like Miles In The Sky and of course Sextant). Fresh from his sessions with Miles Davis and solo debut Spectrum, Billy Cobham cut Crosswinds and Total Eclipse, which were both released in quick succession in 1974. Total Eclipse takes Spectrum's flowing, multi-part jams into ever more fluid territory, with even the most hard rocking rhythms given to a lightness of touch and infused with a low-slung swing.
27. Return To Forever - Where Have I Known You Before
Plying the same furrow as Billy Cobham, Return To Forever's records are prototypical peak-period fusion. At this point there was a fair bit of crossover, sonically speaking, between jazz and prog (the Canterbury scene, Brand X, etc.). Indeed, intricate fusion outings like The Shadow Of Lo, Vulcan Worlds and Song To The Pharoah Kings bear striking similarities to the likes of Hatfield & The North (and vice versa). A fertile pasture, in other words, even if my absolute favorite tune here is Earth Juice - an undisclosed disco banger!
28. Parliament - Mothership Connection
If space is the word, then there's no getting around P-Funk's galactic escapades. Mothership Connection is the moment when the band's interplanetary agenda truly took center stage: they even took to landing a giant starship on stage each night during their subsequent world tour. The group's transformation from its earlier acid-fried incarnation to a smooth-edged groove machine is finalized here, with Bootsy Collins' basslines hitting their elastic peak and Bernie Worrell's technicolor keyboards taking on a life of their own.
29. Dexter Wansel - Life On Mars
(Philadelphia International: 1976)
As house producer for Philadelphia International, Dexter Wansel played a crucial role in much of the label's late-seventies output, building on the groundwork that Gamble & Huff laid down during the first half of the decade. In parallel with his production work, Wansel released four solo records that split the difference between smooth Philly soul and jazz fusion.
His debut solo outing, Life On Mars, features solar jazz funk excursions like Theme From The Planets and Rings Of Saturn, in which every texture seems shot through with liquid funk and an otherworldly, synth-heavy glow. The space theme recurs throughout Wansel's work: his 1978 album Voyager - home of the awesome Solutions - even features a landed Voyager probe on it's sleeve with Wansel decked out in a spacesuit on the back!
30. Chrome - The Visitation
Only scooped this up relatively recently thanks to a timely reissue by Cleopatra. Chrome's debut came out just before Helios Creed joined the group. His enlistment is widely considered the x-factor that pushed the group into the stratosphere, but to my mind this is still a very worthwhile record, Damon Edge's uncompromising vision already steering the band toward greatness. Occasionally touted as the midpoint between Bay Area acid rock and post punk - shadows of Jefferson Airplane, Santana and even the early Journey records can be felt throughout - there's a raw directness to this material that places it firmly alongside the soon-to-be-active Public Image Ltd. and The Pop Group.
31. Ashra - New Age Of Earth
Manuel Göttsching's space music opus. Warm electronic sequences slowly unfurl as he occasionally transmits his shimmering guitar figures deep into the cosmos. The sleeve sometimes makes me think of the towering architecture in the film On The Silver Globe, even if angelic reveries like Sunrain and Deep Distance are light-years away from that film's unremittingly bleak landscapes. Simply beautiful, every home should have a copy.
32. Tomita - The Tomita Planets
(RCA Red Seal: 1976)
Isao Tomita performs Holst's The Planets, the space-inspired classical piece seemingly a natural fit for his electronic instrumentation. Tomita's version of Mercury, The Winged Messenger sounds strikingly like some of the The Orb's zanier moments. I remember my mom once checked out a video from the library that had NASA footage edited to accompany this work. It started with jagged, violent cuts for Mars, The Bringer Of War and became all soft and drifty for Neptune, The Mystic. Needless to say, it was right up my alley.
33. Vangelis - Albedo 0.39
Albedo: The reflecting power of a planet or other non-luminous body. A perfect reflector would have an Albedo of 100%. The Earth's Albedo is 39%, or 0.39.
taken from the liner notes
This proggy slab of electronica matches racing synth sequences with freeform live drumming. Perhaps a touch more minimal than the previous year's Heaven And Hell, you can still hear the basis for his subsequent soundtrack work (Blade Runner, Chariots Of Fire, etc.) in the colossal passages scattered throughout (even if I do tend to prefer its quieter moments).
34. Jean-Michel Jarre - Oxygene
I owe this one completely to my Uncle James. I remember showing him a song that I was working on back in the day and he asked have you ever heard of Jean-Michel Jarre? A couple months later he gave me the Images compilation. Shortly after, I started buying the albums and digging deeper into seventies electronica. Parts of Oxygene have shown up in quite a few places, for example the surreal desert running scenes in Gallipoli and the radio play for The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.
35. The Mike Theodore Orchestra - Cosmic Wind
Cosmic disco! The following album High On Mad Mountain might go even further off the edge, but this does have the inimitable Moon Trek. Sounding like an unlikely cross between car chase music from a seventies cop show and the original Star Trek theme, it's an unforgettable slice of space age bachelor pad music taken for a walk on the dancefloor. Before seeing Searching For Sugar Man, I'd never known that Mike Theodore co-produced Sixto Rodriguez's classic debut Cold Fact with Dennis Coffey. The interview clips with the both of them came as a pleasant surprise.
36. Mandré - Mandré
Further adventures in cosmic disco. Virtually any of Mandré's records would qualify, but the seventeen-minute ARP odyssey Solar Flight gives this one the edge. Mandré was one Andre Lewis, former session man and synth-wizard who was touted by Motown as a man from outer space and only ever appeared with his face obscured by a futuristic mask (decades before Daft Punk).
37. Eddie Palmieri - Exploration: Salsa-Descarga-Jazz
Select far-out moments from the salsa legend's seventies recordings rounded up into one cosmic package (the sleeve, another personal favorite, is a dead give away). Cobarde homes in on the same zone of controlled chaos as Coltrane's space jazz excursions, while at the same time making me flash on Carl Craig's jazz outings with Innerzone Orchestra. Chocolate Ice Cream and The Mod Scene are sprawling downbeat jazz fission in league with Miles Davis' seventies sound, and I can't help using the term zero-gravity when describing Condiciones Que Existen's casually funky low-slung breaks.
38. Roy Buchanan - You're Not Alone
Gorgeous space-blues. I discovered this through The Music Of Cosmos compilation, the soundtrack to Carl Sagan's documentary mini-series, where the elegiac Fly... Night Bird stood out from the surrounding selections. Roy Buchanan one of the great blues guitarists of the era, his earlier instrumental Sweet Dreams remains a classic rock staple (it even factors into the ending of Martin Scorcese's The Departed). You're Not Alone brings that sound into the realm of jazz-tinged psychedelia, stretching mournful solos across vast pools of atmospheric rhodes and electronics, with a heavenly version of Neil Young's Down By The River standing as just one particular highlight.
39. Steve Hillage - Rainbow Dome Musick
Steve Hillage with the hat trick! I remember picking this one up on the same day as New Age Of Earth. Space music par excellence with Hillage's guitar glissandos arcing over a rolling riverbed of found sound and twinkling ARPs. The famous anecdote around this record has The Orb's Alex Patterson spinning its sounds in the back room at Paul Oakenfold's Land Of Oz club when an unsuspecting Steve Hillage wanders in, resulting in his guest appearance on The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld and further dancefloor excursions as System 7 (whose Sinbad/Quest 12" nearly made this list).
40. The Human League - The Dignity Of Labour Pts. 1-4
(Fast Product: 1979)
The Human League's follow up to their epochal Being Boiled is a grainy, lo-fi excursion into seventies deep space electronica. The sleeve features a photo of Yuri Gagarin recieiving commodations from the Soviet government for completing the first manned mission into space. The record's conceit was that the space program was only made possible by the coal miners beneath the earth providing fuel for the workers in the steel mills who built the rockets that carried Gagarin into space. Hence, The Dignity Of Labour.
41. Tubeway Army - Replicas
(Beggars Banquet: 1979)
As was the case with exotica, I was surprised that I couldn't think of more space-explicit new wave space records. Here's one that fit the bill, featuring Gary Numan's extended storyboard concept - one that he hoped to one day flesh out into a science-fiction novel - built around aliens and robots involved in the control of civilization. Down In The Park even found its way - via a Foo Fighters cover version - onto an X-Files tribute album some years later.
42. Queen - Flash Gordon: Original Soundtrack
Klytus... I'm bored. What plaything can you offer me today? This is an early one for me. Indeed, I was obsessed with this movie as a kid. So not much has changed... and at the very least it's a whole lot of fun. Essentially a not-totally-serious remake of the science-fiction serial dating back to the 1930's. Perhaps this is where the knowingly camp aesthetic enters the mainstream? Even if there are some incredibly touching moments: Timothy Dalton's heroic turnaround and basically everything involving Topol throughout the second half of the movie.
This is the soundtrack to the film of the same name, famously provided by Queen. Everyone knows the title track, but there are a number of instrumentals throughout that threaten to steal the show: The Kiss (Aura Resurrects Flash), Arboria (Planet Of The Tree Men) and the gorgeous In The Space Capsule (Love Theme) - my absolute favorite moment on the record.
43. Various Artists - The Music Of Cosmos
Another one given to me by the same uncle behind the Jarre compilation. This is the soundtrack to Carl Sagan's epic mini-series documentary Cosmos, featuring loads of space music from Vangelis along with myriad classical pieces by the likes of Vivaldi, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Once again, the Roy Buchanan track really caught my attention here, totally unique in this context.
44. Blackbeard - I Wah Dub
(More Cut: 1980)
Dennis Bovell's orbital dub symphony. Bovell who started out with storied UK reggae group Matumbi, gradually becomes immersed in the studio itself and drifts into the post punk slipstream, resulting in productions for The Pop Group, The Slits and even Ryuichi Sakamoto. Here he cuts loose under the psuedonym Blackbeard, spinning out otherworldly dub reggae in widescreen. Tunes like Electrocharge and Reflections are on a serious outerrim science-fiction tip.
45. Creation Rebel - Starship Africa
(4D Rhythms: 1980)
More interplanetary reggae running parallel to the post punk zeitgeist, this time with Adrian Sherwood behind the mixing board. Sherwood another key figure operating at the axis of dub and post punk, producing the likes of Mark Stewart, Tackhead and Fats Comet alongside projects like New Age Steppers and African Head Charge.
Creation Rebel had a gift for leftfield dub excursions, and Starship Africa takes them as far out as they would ever travel. Structured as two extended suites, Starship Africa and Space Movement, this is the fluid other to Blackbeard's rock-hard riddims.
46. The Police - Ghost In The Machine
Sting's diabolical turn in David Lynch's adaptation of Dune still a few years away at this point. Here, the singular atmosphere of Walking On The Moon gets stretched over an entire LP. Moody and spacious. Perhaps not explicitly space-themed but certainly in thrall to the cosmos, eyes locked firmly onto the stars. The atmosphere here just embodies outer space. Smash hit Invisible Sun creeps in on a bed of tension and just builds, while the closing duo of Secret Journey and Darkness always remind me of Detroit techno in their elegant spaciousness.
47. Clara Mondshine - Luna Africana
(Innovative Communication: 1981)
Krautrock bleeds into the eighties, best represented by the Innovative Communication and Sky labels. A node in the development of organic electronica, occupying the same interzone between kosmische and new age as Double Fantasy's Universal Ave (another one in the nearly list). Like Cluster, Clara Mondshine generates multi-faceted electronic systems that stretch out and develop into glistening tone poems, quickly taking on a life of their own. Word is that this sounds great at both 33 and 45 RPM...
48. Prince Jammy - Prince Jammy Destroys The Invaders...
The young Prince Jammy, still an apprentice of King Tubby and yet to redefine reggae with Sleng Teng and the excellent Computerised Dub, unleashed this technology-infused widescreen dub slate. I think Computerised Dub has the edge on this - only slightly - but it's still a wonderful record in its own right. Electronic drones herald the arrival of almost every track like the gongs in James Brown's Hell, dropping into fathoms deep bass and subterranean production magic that simply refuses to let up. One of the great night drive records.
49. Patrick Cowley - Mind Warp
Not Cowley's greatest work, but the outer space visual/sonic stylings place this firmly into orbit. That sleeve is as good a thumbnail as any for the whole rolling over vector landscapes trip that I'm forever alluding to. Playing a crucial role in the development of hyperdrive west coast disco, San Francisco man Cowley cut his teeth producing Sylvester's You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) and turned out a monster remix of Donna Summer's I Feel Love: computer disco madness of the highest caliber.
Cowley's gotten the Arthur Russell treatment lately, with lavish reissues of unreleased material such as School Daze and Muscle Up hitting the shelves over the last few years. Great to see this brilliant lo-fi mechanoid funk finally find its way onto the world's turntables.
50. Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois & Roger Eno - Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks
One of the original albums in my collection, and basically the only reason I was able to get through calculus in college. This music was originally created by Eno and co. to accompany a documentary on the Apollo missions. The first side is dominated by plaintive, melancholy ambient while the second brings in Daniel Lanois' pedal-steel to lighten the atmosphere with some interstellar country-western guitar moves. This must, I think, be understood as the basis of the atmospheric end of Eno's production work with U2 (The Unforgettable Fire's 4th Of July is cut from the same cloth as this album). The opening Understars is one of the great ambient tracks, a perfect distillation of the form.
51. The Jonzun Crew - Lost In Space
(Tommy Boy: 1983)
Electro as a musical genre as often as not kept space in its sights, and is likely the point where seventies cosmic jazz and soul crossed into the carnal climate of the eighties mainstream. The Jonzun Crew dressed in elaborate stage costumes, clearly inspired by Parliament, Earth, Wind & Fire and other large funk groups of the previous decade. They even thank Sun Ra in the liner notes and have a track of their own called Space Is The Place. Operating at the axis of space and the nascent video game explosion, this music extrapolated a totally new sound and vision out of those twin constituent elements. See also Planet Patrol.
52. Newcleus - Space Is The Place
More electro with an interplanetary agenda, exemplified by the monster title track. This the follow up to the group's epochal Jam On Revenge, expanding that record's smooth grooves even further into widescreen. Newcleus' secret weapon lie in fleshing out electro's skeletal drum machine framework with an array of lush pads and atmospherics, the end result an exercise in rolling digital funk. The cycling tronix of Teknology and Make It Live embody this mesmerizing, immersive sound. Check out that winning sleeve art too (by Bob Camp, who was later involved in The Ren & Stimpy Show), which recalls Pedro Bell's awesome illustrations for Funkadelic.
∞. Michael Jackson - Captain EO
Bonus beat! There was never an actual soundtrack released for this film. Still, there's no getting around it. You really want Another Part Of Me playing whenever you leave a planet. This perfectly captures the optimism of mainstream science-fiction in the post-Star Wars era. My heart fell when Disney replaced this with the abysmal Honey, We Shrunk The Audience back in the nineties. Thankfully, they brought EO back after Michael Jackson's untimely passing. Back in the day, I remember seeing a special on TV - featuring Whoopi Goldberg - about the making of this short film. Disney should issue Captain EO - with that featurette included - on DVD. Somebody make it happen!
53. Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force - Planet Rock: The Album
(Tommy Boy: 1986)
The original deep space electro crew didn't get the LP treatment until well after the electro boom had already started to wane (with Run-DMC in full swing and N.W.A. just around the corner). However, this rounds everything up into one extraterrestrial package (including the original versions of Planet Rock and Looking For The Perfect Beat). An essential document and the final word in interplanetary electro.
54. A.R. Kane - "I"
(Rough Trade: 1989)
The angelic other in eighties indie rock, A.R. Kane made unclassifiable alien dreamtime music that seemed to prefigure shoegaze along with myriad other forms to come. I nearly included records by Loop and Spacemen 3 here as well, but - as great as they are - perhaps their interstellar aims weren't quite explicit enough for this particular list.
A.R. Kane, on the other hand, seemed locked into the same galactic frequency as Sun Ra... and nowhere more than on the extended double-LP "I". A Love From Outer Space is one of the great pop songs of its era, pairing machine rhythms with guitar feedback in a glorious freefall love song.
55. Space - Space
(KLF Communications: 1990)
Since they both served as conduits of eighties post punk resolve into the next decade's dance explosion, it's rather appropriate that this one-off collaboration between The Orb's Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty of The KLF takes us into the nineties. This deep space ambient music, forming a loose trilogy with The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld and The KLF's Chill Out, feels like tumbling into a wormhole (its acid-fried cut up sleeve is the first clue).
56. Sun Electric - O'locco
(WAU! Mr. Modo: 1990)
Picking up where Space left off, O'locco features Sun Electric's timely elongating of Larry Heard's deep house template into what came to be known as ambient house. The Kama Sutra and Space Therapy versions showcase the German group's original vision, while the four parts of the Orbital Therapy version (remixed by The Orb) stretch things out even further. Initially released on Paterson's WAU! Mr. Modo label, it later cropped up on R&S, with Sun Electric ultimately hooking up with the label's ambient subsidiary Apollo for a handful of excellent albums.
57. The Orb - The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld
(Big Life: 1991)
Dr. Alex Paterson's sprawling double-LP ambient house stone tablet. One of those records you can just throw on and get lost in. Everyone knows the album-opener Little Fluffy Clouds, which offers a preview of things to follow: the nomadic breaks of Outlands and Earth (Gaia), Into The Fourth Dimension's resolute proto-trance drive, the endless live mix of A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld, Perpetual Dawn's pulsing dub moves, Supernova At The End Of The Universe's twisting downbeat crawl and of course the sprawling ambient soundscapes of Back Side Of The Moon, Spanish Castles In Space and Star 6 & 7 8 9.
58. Biosphere - Microgravity
Another chapter in the ambient house story, this time coming from inside the Arctic Circle. Geir Jenssen - who went on to release a whole brace of classic ambient albums like Cirque and Substrata - hosted a radio show called Bleep Culture in his hometown of Tromsø, Norway, during which he spun a mix of ambient and techno, punctuated by what he called small astronomy lectures.1 Microgravity clearly draws inspiration from those transmissions, with moody techno cuts like Baby Interphase and Chromosphere flowing smoothly into the sublime ambient drift of Cloudwalker II and Biosphere. The title track even samples David Gulpilil's he know the moon, he know the stars, and he know the milky way dialogue from the NASA-themed film The Right Stuff.
59. Underground Resistance - The Final Frontier
(Underground Resistance: 1991)
Detroit's Underground Resistance may have always had an ear to the street, but that only meant that the other one was pointed upward to the stars. Think Arecibo. The Final Frontier is a celestial cruise over rolling electro rhythms, with a phantom 303 acid line drifting in and out of the mix like a comet trail: a clear spiritual ancestor to the Red Planet records. This becomes even more explicit with Entering Quadrant Five, its hyperdrive fractal sequences spiralling over another tough electro backbeat - prefiguring some of The Martian's most g-force inducing flights of fancy - while Base Camp Alpha 808 is a spacious, percussive tumble through the sleeve imagery of Herbie Hancock's Sextant.
60. Deep Space Network - Earth To Infinity
I've always been unclear whether this record is self-titled or credited to Deep Space Network. Well, I still file it with the rest of Jonas Grossmann and David Moufang's output, so let's stick with that for the time being. This the first of their utterly unique freeform sonic excursions - records which were quietly released on their own Source imprint - and it might just be the greatest ambient house full-length of them all, sounding like field recordings transmitted from light-years away. A song like Morphic Fields, with such timeless beauty in its endless, gentle drift, deserves to be more widely heard.
61. Dyewitness - Observing The Earth
Monstrous Dutch hardcore shearing into proto-gabber territory. Observing The Earth canes the hoover sound into submission, thrashing about the room like a demented xenomorph, while Starship To Venus rewinds stop-start bleeps over a relentless hammer-blow kickdrum. The flipside rivals the first, with Passion and Like This threading renegade breakbeats through their pounding rhythm matrix. Strangely enough, I bought my copy from Jon Bishop a few years back amidst a whole stack of hardcore records. So thanks to a true OG for introducing me to this tile in the first place.
62. X-102 - X-102 Discovers The Rings Of Saturn
Another UR-related release, produced by the trio of Jeff Mills, Mad Mike and Robert Hood. Each track is named for one the rings or moons orbiting Saturn (plus one representing the planet itself), with the length of each corresponding to its size and distance from the others.2 Hyperion and Groundzero (The Planet) recall earlier hardcore excursions like The Punisher and Sonic Destroyer, while you can feel the genesis of Hood and Mills' brand of minimal techno in the driving repetition of Enceladus and Titan. Impressionistic interludes like Tethys and A-Ring add considerably to the record's visionary depth, while the cinematic scope of Mimas marks it out as a particularly spellbinding moment.
63. Various Artists - Intergalactic Beats
(Planet E: 1992)
This crucial compilation rounds up music from some of the earliest releases on Carl Craig's Planet E imprint, with a strong European showing thanks to incursions from Steffan Robbers' Eevo Lute and Kirk Degiorgio's ART labels on two separate EPs released by Craig during the preceding year. Plaid weigh in with the introspective machine music of Balil's Nort Route, while Steffan Robbers checks in with the gorgeous celestial reverie of Florence's A Touch Of Heaven. Carl Craig provides nearly half of the material here, with entries from 69's 4 Jazz Funk Classics, the awesome Free Your Mind by Piece and a surprise exclusive in the shape of Shop's most excellent Nitwit. Interestingly, both Terminator 2 and Alien 3 are listed in the liner notes as inspirations.
64. Dark Comedy - Corbomite Maneuver
Named for an episode of the original Star Trek, this is Kenny Larkin's first record after leaving Plus 8. The centerpiece is War Of The Worlds (which also featured on the Intergalactic Beats compilation), an epic slice of cinematic deep space techno, its siren synths arcing over a pulsing Moroder-esque rhythm. I've always loved the sleeve illustration by Abdul Haqq, the brilliant Detroit artist behind Third Earth Visual Arts, who's also responsible for Intergalactic Beats' iconic sleeve art (right up there with Sextant as far as I'm concerned).
65. Acen - Trip II The Moon (Part 1)
(Production House: 1992)
Deep space trip from the ardkore auteur. Absolutely brilliant arrangement of sound, with fast-forward breaks spooling out beneath a ravishing string section, all punctuated by a bionic diva wailing into the abyss. See also parts two and three (aka the Kaleidoscopiklimax), for further chapters in this exquisite lunar saga. Part two even features an incredible snatch of Nancy Sinatra's theme to the James Bond film You Only Live Twice.
66. The Prodigy - Out Of Space
Possibly the finest moment from this ragged bunch of techno renegades, riding a lengthy sample of Max Romeo's I Chase The Devil before tripping back into drum and bass. The music video, an exercise in amateurish charm multiplied by boundless optimism (this is light-years away from the big budget polish of Fat Of The Land), is among my all-time favorites.
67. Dynamix II - Bass Planet
(Dynamix II: 1993)
Miami bass stalwarts Dynamix II kept electro's fires lit well into the nineties, when a new wave of producers like Drexciya and The Octagon Man would seize the torch and run with it. A concept record of sorts, Bass Planet takes the supercharged man-machine rhythms of the duos earlier records into deep orbit, exemplified by the soaring brilliance of a track like Machine Planet.
68. Galaxy 2 Galaxy - Galaxy 2 Galaxy
(Underground Resistance: 1993)
You simply can't overstate the importance of outer space when discussing a crew like UR. This the third in a series of records - starting with Nation 2 Nation and followed by World 2 World - that find the group delving deep into corridors of dance-inflected space jazz. I say group but everything here (with the exception of guest spots featuring Juan Atkins and The Martian) is credited to Mad Mike. He seems to draw here on his roots as a live session musician back in the eighties (playing with groups like Parliament/Funkadelic), in a back-to-the-future gesture that would culminate in The Turning Point EP four years later.
Both versions of Hi-Tech Jazz pick up where Herbie Hancock and Eddie Russ left off, while Star Sailing follows the template of blissed-out jazz funk that UR laid out in earlier tracks like Body And Soul and Jupiter Jazz. There's also moments of fierce beauty, the most striking of which is Journey Of The Dragons. The magic lies in its graceful inevitability: those racing sequences punctuated by jabs from a razor-edged string section, a descending bassline and rolling 808 beats that wait two minutes to fully drop. It all simply unfolds. Meanwhile, Deep Space 9 (A Brother Runs This Ship) continues the bubbling undercurrent of Detroit's fascination with Star Trek - this time by way of Benjamin Sisko's Deep Space Nine.
69. The Martian - Red Planet 4: Journey To The Martian Polar Cap
(Red Planet: 1993)
The Martian's records are cut from the same cloth as UR's, so much so that many at the time theorized that he was actually someone from that crew operating under a cloak of anonymity (I remember Mad Mike's name getting tossed around quite a bit). It turns out that The Martian was very much his own man, laboring in isolation to arrive at a wholly unique shade of sound. Visual Contact and the title track trade in wild trancelike shapes (see also the earlier Stardancer), while Red Atmospheres and Search Your Feelings (featuring Model 500) are inspiring excursions into pure techno soul. Red Planet definitely a connoisseurs label: before long you'll find yourself tracking down every last record.
70. Global Communication - Pentamerous Metamorphosis
Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard's debut full-length outing as Global Communication, this is often considered a dress rehearsal for their widely feted 76:14. It's actually an extended reworking of Chapterhouse's Blood Music, spun out into ethereal ambient mode, and stands as a great record in its own right. Marathon running times abound, with proto-Boards Of Canada beats and ghosts of an indie rock band slipping in and out of the soundscape.
71. Basic Channel - Lyot Rmx
(Basic Channel: 1993)
Basic Channel's haunting remix of Vainquer's Lyot masterfully evokes the Martian crater of the same name. An edit made it onto the BCD compilation a few years later, but the twelve-minute original - stretching across a whole side of vinyl - really allows the track to breathe life into an immersive environment all it's own. With those gamma ray synths unfurling in graceful slow-motion, BC's dub chamber habitats remain the perfect metaphor for the deep black of space.
72. Octave One - The "X" Files
(430 West: 1994)
Octave One here also perfectly evoking outer space, only this time from within the cramped confines of an orbital space station. The opening Dema offers a precise, clear cut illustration of the group's compact electronic funk. Further references to Star Trek from a Detroit crew - this time on a Next Generation tip - are everywhere, from Farpoint's spooky garage shuffle to the technoid house of Dominion, and my absolute favorite the freaked out analogue funk of The Neutral Zone.
73. SETI - SETI
I know next to nothing about this record, which I bought on sight in the elysian fields of the El Cajon Music Trader (circa 2001). It's a longform ambient work seemingly inspired by the SETI program's search for extraterrestrial life. There's the occasional rhythmic flourish but mostly it's a marathon excursion into atmospheric drift. Nice.
74. 4 Hero - Parallel Universe
Dego and Marc Mac split the atom, beaming 60's/70's astral jazz into the future and back again, splicing the results with their absolute mastery of breakbeat science. At it's most twisted, tracks like Wrinkles In Time and Sounds From The Black Hole posit an entirely new rhythmic vernacular, while the calmer moments - such as Sunspots and Power To Move The Stars - conjure up images of some utopian orbital cloud city. As I've noted before, it's one of my favorite records ever.
75. Model 500 - Deep Space
Picking up where the previous year's Sonic Sunset left off, Juan Atkins' greatest full-length continues unabated in its pursuit of the celestial. Over half of the record was engineered by Basic Channel's Moritz Von Oswald, with pristine sonics in evidence throughout, ranging from the drum 'n bass moves of Astralwerks to the deconstructed machine funk of Last Transport (To Alpha Centauri). His influence can be particularly felt in the dubbed-out minimal techno of Starlight and Lightspeed, and you even get a version of Sonic Sunset's marathon vocal deep house excursion I Wanna Be There, edited down from the nearly twenty-minute running time of the original.
Then there's The Flow, a shot of machine soul right smack in the middle of the record that I swear sounds exactly like the blueprint for Timbaland and The Neptunes' sonic adventures just around the corner. Blink and it could almost be a Kelis song. I've often wondered whether they heard this record back in '95...
76. Planetary Assault Systems - Archives
The first full-length from Luke Slater's minimal side-project pulls together a brace of early material from his ongoing Planetary Funk series of EPs and combines them with four new exclusives. The sleeve a perfect illustration of the grooves found within, with this hard as nails, motorik techno perfectly capturing the spirit of interplanetary travel - or warfare.
77. Space DJz - On Manoeuvres In Uncharted Territories
Ben Long and Bandulu's Jamie Bissmire get down with their first outing as the Space DJz, trading in both hard techno and tough electro jams throughout its twenty-eight minutes. Perhaps I could have picked their 1999 album On Patrol!, but Celestial Funk - a rough and tumble slab of streetwise electro (and by my estimation the duo's finest moment) - just edges it out for this spot. The three-second refrain sums up its loose, off the cuff charm: Set you free, set you free, set you free!
78. Manna - Our Earth
Sheffield duo's finest moment, standing astride the twin pillars of their idiosyncratic sound: dub and ambient electronica. Our Earth (Big, Isn't It) is a cinematic downbeat trip through the subway while riding a colossal slow-motion break, whereas Mr. Echo (Go To Hell) is a peaceful weightless drift through bucolic ambient soundscapes.
There were loads of great records on Apollo, the ambient subsidary of R&S, indeed the Apollo Compilation - a round-up of tracks from various early releases on the label (including Love Craft's awesome Intelligent Univers) - can be chalked up as another record in the "nearly" list.
79. Tournesol - Moonfunk
Brittle, spangly electronica from Denmark. Think The Black Dog circa Spanners. Every sound, every texture seems to have the timbre of reverberating metal - tempting visions of exotic instrumentation fashioned from wafer-thin sheets of chrome and copper - and all arranged with a breathtakingly nimble touch. Strangely enough, there's even a couple abstract hip hop incursions featuring an MC Panasonique, who I know next to nothing about and may have only surfaced on this album before vanishing forever.
80. Photek - U.F.O./Rings Around Saturn
Spectral drum 'n bass with one foot still in the jungle, this is Photek's paean to the stars. U.F.O. is a claustrophobic sprint through shadowy, paranoid corridors, predicting the atmosphere of his excellent debut full-length Modus Operandi by a couple years. The flipside includes the dreamy landscapes of Rings Around Saturn, with it's strange bird calls and crisp, nimble breakbeats - ghostly strings and a rhodes pulsing throughout - taking you deep into cosmic jazz territory.
81. Larry Heard - Alien
(Black Market International: 1996)
The follow up to Heard's pair of Sceneries Not Songs records, Alien is cut from the same cloth: spacious, jazzed-out dynamics in play, operating in downbeat mode as often as the deep house bedrock where his roots lie (even slipping into spells of beatless atmosphere from time to time).
Heard seems to be refracting the ambient house excursions of Sun Electric and The Orb back across the Atlantic, just as they had done with his initial deep house template years ago. Consequently, the dazzling digital disco of The Dance Of Planet X squares the introspective ambience of his contemporary material with his landmark eighties recordings as Mr. Fingers (see Can You Feel It, Beyond The Clounds and Stars for just a few examples).
82. Dom & Roland - Dynamics
(Moving Shadow: 1996)
Spooky, razor-edged drum 'n bass. Moving into the late nineties, this is one of the finest tracks of its era. The Planets begins with nearly a minute of beatless atmosphere before its metallic breakbeat comes crashing in, literally chopping through the track, when suddenly the tune drifts back out into pure ambience.
Crumbling astral bodies seem to throb in the distance before slowly being drawn into something resembling a bassline - through sheer centrifugal force of will - and Dom's breakbeat science comes crashing back into the mix. Wraithlike synths seem to shimmer ominously, permeating every corner of the soundscape, while eerie sounds pitched somewhere between gale wind and guttural moan rise out of the darkness. It is very cold in space.
83. DJ Spooky - Galactic Funk
New York illbient and the flipside of breakbeat science. This four track EP features That Subliminal Kid scratching galaxies (to borrow a phrase from the Death Comet Crew) into oblivion, sliding across the surface of a planetarium like the cave paintings of Altamira set in motion. The title track, with its wild phased clavinet breakdown, is the highlight here, but also check the beatless string-laden deluge of The Vengeance Of Galaxy 5, which sounds like field recordings of a distant cataclysm at the edge of space recovered from some ancient battered probe.
84. Outkast - ATLiens
Southern rap. From before they were a household name. Simon Reynolds once called Elevators (Me & You) Sun Ra-gone-hip hop. When you're confronted with its eerie smeared organ drift, dubbed-out snare clicks and a hauntingly chanted chorus, well it's pretty hard to argue. You've also got the title track, a masterfully arranged mini-epic that rides a nagging bassline, shining synths and a lightspeed-to-infinity filtered vocal snatch - linked with an infectious sing-along chorus - into the Martian sunset.
85. Various Artists mixed by Kevin Saunderson - X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio
(Studio !K7: 1997)
One of the pivotal moments in my musical life was receiving this mix - as a gift - just after it dropped, opening the doors to Detroit techno and beyond. The first thing you notice is that marathon intro, with DJ Minx announcing you're in deep space over far-out sonics that recall Hendrix's ... And The Gods Made Love, before Kevin "Master Reese" Saunderson backspins into the tribal fury of Bango's Ritual Beating System (Stacey Pullen's absorbing rumination on Olatunji's Drums Of Passion).
The transmission continues through tracks by Detroit figures like Octave One, Carl Craig and Sean Deason, amazing jazzed-out house by Deep Dish (under the banner Chocolate City), Outlander's epochal slab of Belgian hardcore The Vamp (remixed by none other than Master Reese himself), myriad tracks from the Netherlands' Dobre & Jamez and even both sides of a contemporary E-Dancer 12". The wide-open sonics in E-Dancer's World Of Deep perfectly encapsulate everything this mix - and indeed great dance music - is all about.
86. Kelis - Kaleidoscope
We found her on one of our voyages to the fourth sector, intones Pharrell in the intro, and from then on The Neptunes provide Kelis with loads of brilliant alien soundscapes to cut loose in. The retro-70's strains of Mars (those synths!) recall Stevie Wonder at his most cosmic, while Roller Rink's astral funk has Kelis asking Have you ever thought there might be something out there? Far out, way out, while Pharrell is delivering their firstborn on a NASA space shuttle. Casual references to space are scattered throughout, and Kelis herself shines as an utterly unique (alien?) presence. Rather appropriately, The Neptunes later called their label Star Trak Entertainment.
87. Spacek - Curvatia
Spectral r&b. In spirit at least, it's like SA-RA before SA-RA: space capsule music (think One Way's Don't Stop) unfurling out into the stars... this is pure machine soul. Every texture so delicate, and Steve Spacek's voice so fragile, the whole record seems to simply glide by in a mist. How Do I Move, with it's technoid pulses cycling and drifting through the soundscape, seems aware of its own ethereal properties. Sex In Zero Gravity.
88. Spacemonkeyz versus Gorillaz - Laika Come Home
The first Gorillaz album gets dubbed out, stretched out and spaced out by the Spacemonkeyz. Possibly even better than the original album, especially for those after a deep sonic fix. Damon Albarn continues on the road to becoming a worldly man (see also Mali Music), with Blur beginning to wind down as a full-time concern. The mood here seems to recall The Special AKA and Ghost Town, that same spectral and spacious sense of dub run through pop's kaleidoscopic funhouse. If you listen closely, you can hear the roots for The Good, The Bad & The Queen beginning to take shape...
89. Mitch Walcott - Europa
Exquisite space music on Jeff Mills' Tomorrow label. The liner notes contain extended quotes from 2010 and Kodwo Eshun, while the sounds within bring to mind the solemnity of hard science-fiction. Following the journey of a probe to the titular sixth moon of Jupiter, the album moves through ethereal ambient excursions like Long Journey Of Spacecraft and Views From The Surface into the stark orchestral shades of Reaching The Subsurface Ocean.
Tracks like Drilling Through The Ice and Crash Landing Of Probe jut from the record's calm surface with pure noise to punctuate their titular events, while the atmospheric Sinking Slowly Through The Ice captures an all-encompassing sense of wonder and dread. Descent Towards The Discovery Of Life draws all of these strands together, closing out this deeply special record on a majestic note, it's austere splendor bringing to mind first side of Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks.
90. Me'Shell NdegéOcello - Comfort Woman
Breathtakingly romantic zero-gravity soul. My absolute favorite record of NdegéOcello's, there's a strong reggaematic current running through most the rhythms here. Liliquoi Moon and Andromeda & The Milky Way mark this out as a space record, shot through with an otherworldly glide and drawing on a deep palette of sound.
There's this one particular synth sound that colors large swathes of the album and makes me flash on Detroit in its magnetic pull. You hear it in the climax of a song like Love Song #3, with its shades of Hendrix circa 1983...(A Merman I Should Turn To Be), and the result is almost overwhelmingly powerful. Then there's the blissed out gaussian blurred flow of Come Smoke My Herb - quite simply a perfect pop song - drifting through space on a solar wind.
91. Kelley Polar - Love Songs Of The Hanging Gardens
Three-part-harmony-inflected digital disco. Polar arranged the string section on the revered Metro Area records, and accordingly, this came out on Morgan Geist's Environ imprint. The sleeve's Pillars Of Creation photograph is a dead give away, but the spangly textures and crisp sense of space in songs like Here In The Night and Black Hole betray this tile's cosmic intent. The awesome Matter Into Energy, my favorite moment here, eschews beats altogether in favor of a sumptuous freefall reverie.
92. SA-RA Creative Partners - Cosmic Dust/Cosmic Lust
(Jazzy Sport: 2005)
As I've said before, I love SA-RA, and the Cosmic Dust/Cosmic Lust double-shot is the crew's finest front-to-back moment. Machine soul in a space capsule stylee, SA-RA perfected a sound that stretches back to the days of Kleeer and Mtume, imbuing it with all the energy of rave and hip hop from the ensuing years. The implicit outer space sonics of those groups is made explicit here (and how!). Their consistently evocative sleeves are a perfect illustration of the spacious sounds found within.
93. Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O. - Have You Seen The Other Side Of The Sky?
(Ace Fu: 2006)
Freaked-out space rock from Japan. At times this recalls Amon Düül II, in not only the acid-folk sprawl of Buy The Moon Of Jupiter and Interplanetary Love, but especially the extended nearly thirty-minute sonic mayhem of The Tales Of Solar Sail - Dark Stars In The Dazzling Sky. You couldn't make this stuff up!
94. Kid Cudi - Man On The Moon: The End Of Day
(Universal Motown: 2009)
This one caught me totally off guard at the time, a rap/r&b record that seemed to share a similar spirit with the music of A.R. Kane and Tears For Fears circa The Hurting. Sure, 808s & Heartbreaks might have hinted in the direction of this new wave-inflected r&b, but the Kid ploughs a much deeper furrow.
My World is just one of many mini-epics that seem to draw on Tangerine Dream's soundtrack work as much as the aforementioned new wave and machine soul. The Detroit-inflected techno of Enter Galactic (Love Connection Part 1) (think Juan Atkins in Infiniti mode) and the awesome resolute crawl of Alive (Nightmare) - the synths and guitar shapes of which make me flash on Eno's Another Green World - map out a broad vision of outerspace/innerspace music.
95. Jeff Mills - The Messenger
(Third Ear: 2012)
The Wizard has turned his mind to celestial matters on more than one occasion (see X-102 Discovers The Rings Of Saturn, Jupiter Jazz and One Man Spaceship for just a few examples), but this relatively recent one seemed to be a culmination of those obsessions. The subtle inflections of this broad, filmic music sometimes bring to mind his incredible soundtrack for Metropolis.3 A master stroke.
96. Claude Young - Celestial Bodies
(Fountain Music: 2013)
Largely ambient LP from revered Detroit DJ Claude Young. His production career has often seemed strangely underrated by the cognoscenti, but the man has built up a serious discography over the years, growing more and more abstract over the course of time. Celestial Bodies trades in similar forms of austere, immersive ambience as Mitch Walcott and Jeff Mills, and tracks like Messier 86 (NGC 4406) and Observing The Kuiper Belt bear striking shades of atmospheric depth and splendor. However, there's still a bit of tough machine funk tucked away in Hawking Radiation, harking back to the muscular, abstract techno of Young's past.
97. Kamasi Washington - The Epic
Cosmic jazz on the Sun Ra big band tip. Washington contributed to the jazz foundation of Kendrick Lamar's excellent To Pimp A Butterfly, and here he stretches out over three discs with an ambitious song cycle that recalls the wide-open sides of figures like Charles Mingus, Pharoah Sanders and of course Sun Ra on Impulse! during the glory days of astral jazz. Incredibly dense and daring, this record stands on its own as an adventurous, extended slab of visionary modern jazz.
98. Dâm-Funk - Invite The Light
(Stones Throw: 2015)
L.A.'s Damon Riddick expands on the spaced-out currents found in his earlier work with a sprawling g-funk blast that comes on like an intergalactic broadcast picked up on some strange nocturnal frequency. The record is bracketed by two transmissions from Junie Morrison that bring to mind the extended conceptual works of Parliament/Funkadelic, and accordingly, the scale here seems larger than it ever has before on a Dâm-Funk record. Where his earlier tiles like Burgundy City and Toeachizown were intimate, largely solo affairs, this album ropes in an extended cast ranging from hip hop icons like Snoop Dogg and Q-Tip to old school veterans like Jody Watley and Leon Sylvers, and even alternative rockers like Ariel Pink and Flea!
Still, the remit is very much on the electronic funk tip, and tracks like Missing U and The Hunt & Murder Of Lucifer continue to develop Riddick's singular take on machine soul. Similarly, uptempo excursions Floating On Air and O.B.E. (which brings to mind The Orb's track of nearly the same name) advance this fascinating side of the man's music that feels like his own distinctly original take on techno, as if arrived upon via a totally different set of circumstances (Arabian Prince and The Egyptian Lover being two of the most obvious touchstones) but still rocking a righteous mash up of Kraftwerk and George Clinton. Seeing him perform at The Casbah with a live band (on the night of this record's release, as a matter of fact) was a real treat, and without a doubt one of the greatest shows I've ever had the pleasure to witness.
99. Nik Turner - Space Fusion Odyssey
(Purple Pyramid: 2015)
Ethereal space rock from last year by one of the original architects of Hawkwind (its sleeve a play on that band's X In Search Of Space). This largely instrumental, free-wandering excursion at times recalls early Ozric Tentacles. Featuring another extended cast working together in the studio, this ties together whole strands of the space rock community with appearances from Gong's Gilli Smyth and Steve Hillage (yet again!), Amon Düül II's John Weinzierl, Brainticket's Joel Vandroogenbroeck and even Robbie Krieger of The Doors, plus fusioneers like Billy Cobham and Soft Machine's John Etheridge, not to mention wildcard appearances by Nick Garratt of punk band UK Subs and Die Krupps' industrial architect Jürgen Engler!
100. David Bowie - Blackstar
Bowie's final album-length statement, teeming with loose and free-flowing jazz inflections. It's been compared to late-period Scott Walker in its inscrutable mood and abstract shapes, but is very much a culmination of everything he's been up to for the last twenty-odd years.
Inspired in part by the freewheeling spirit of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly4, Blackstar finds Bowie collaborating one last time with the indomitable Tony Visconti on a sequence of seven songs that swoop and shudder within a lush, three-dimensional soundscape. The record cycles gracefully between disparate modes, from the downbeat crawl of Lazarus and Dollar Days to the gliding rhythms of lead single 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore. Those hyper-syncopated, rolling beats on Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) even touch on the jungle-inflected corridors of 1997's Earthling, an album that's remained close to my heart as very my first Bowie record. The gorgeous, album-closing I Can't Give Everything Away plays like a touching goodbye letter to the world.
Blackstar is utterly magnificent, a strange and sublime masterpiece. As the record that inspired this wide and wonderful trip in the first place, it serves as a fitting conclusion to our journey. Ventures to the vast beyond, in the end, take us back home to our tiny blue planet - spinning lonely in the cosmos - and all the sonic treasures held within.
A week ago today, Prince passed away, leaving a massive hole in the musical landscape. This was man whose songwriting and innovation fueled decades of popular music right up to the present day. Gone, unexpectedly and without expectation or warning, in a year that's already taken too many of the great ones from us. I meant to write something sooner but the words wouldn't come. All I could do was get lost in his music again, this treasure that he'd left behind. And that took me back to the beginning, my beginning anyway, when I first truly heard him.
I came to Prince initially through my love of Detroit techno. His name seemed to surface all the time as I ventured further down that rabbit hole, celebrated by figures like Carl Craig and Kevin Saunderson, spun by Jeff Mills in his salad days as The Wizard and even rubbing shoulders on air with The Electrifying Mojo. It quickly became clear that this was an innovator who embodied the restless creative spirit of the times and - perhaps more than anyone else - loomed large over the era.
Around this time, in a rare bit of synchonicity, a radio station called Magic 92.5 arose from the ashes of The Flash, firing on all cylinders in those days with a steady dose of soul, funk and disco. Needless to say, Prince's music was in heavy rotation, and it wouldn't be suprising to hear Delirious, When Doves Cry and Kiss over the course of any given day. I got to hear the 1999 and Purple Rain LPs in their entirety while staying at a hip aunt and uncle's (she was a hardcore Prince fan), hearing how the songs I already knew slotted into the context of his album-length statements. It was a small step from there to picking up Dirty Mind, the first of many records in my journey forward and back again through the man's music... there's a whole world in there to explore.
A particular strain of Prince's music caught my imagination immediately: moody, half-lit in neon, mist hanging over twilight city streets... at once cinematic and intimate, it was intoxicating to say the least. A song like Something In The Water (Does Not Compute) embodies it, with that cavern-deep synth and descending bleeps cascading over a stop-start drum machine matrix, computer blue waves of sound rising to crash into great crescendos of pure soul. And at the center of it all, a prince of dreams standing in the shadows of love, screaming to the heavens.
The beauty of it all was that you couldn't put him in a box: once you thought you had him figured out, he'd bolt into leftfield on you. His music seemed to transcend boundary at every turn. From the the rolling electrofunk pulse of Erotic City to the lithe glam-metal crunch of Bambi, from the new wave rush of When You Were Mine to the surreal dreamscape of If I Was Your Girlfriend, from the gorgeous paisley pop of Starfish And Coffee to the breathtaking widescreen majesty of Purple Rain, the restless spirit of an innovator could not be contained.
Indeed in later years, he continued to stretch out further and further, with smoldering epics like Family Name and the sprawling, gloriously freaky instrumental jazz fusion of the N.E.W.S. LP, even delving into hardcore techno with the blistering groove of Loose!. A haunting song called Colonized Mind found him channeling Electric Ladyland, while the stripped down groove Black Sweat proved that when he wanted to, the man could still get down and dirty on the funk tip.
Ah yes, funk. Don't think I was going to forget! Was there a greater purveyor of the form on the heels of James Brown and George Clinton? From the start, with the bedroom funk of Soft And Wet and Lady Cab Driver's careening, extended groove, gliding sideways across shimmering rain-slicked streets, the man had a nimble touch on the one that was unparalleled. He delved even further into hard machine funk with Housequake and Shockadelica, laying the blueprint for decades of dancefloor burners in the process, while the sprawling twenty-minute 12" version of America is a madhouse romp through the warped corridors of eighties dancefloor funk, its blazing arcs of guitar psychedelia showcasing Prince's total mastery of the instrument.
His musicality was the stuff of legend. This was man who loved music and that love could be felt in every note he played. He seemed to sneak as much joy and lust for life as he could into every corner of each and every song. A song like Alphabet St. is a testament to that. He'd toss in another guitar filigree, a rhythm change up or that extra bit of synth flourish, almost like he was getting away with something... at times, you could practically see him wink before going off on another variation. And for just a moment, you felt like you were in on it too.
There's always been great comfort in knowing the man was up there in Paisley Park, still doing it as only he could. New music would come splashing out from time to time - sometimes out of the blue, with little fanfare - or he'd pop up at such and such an appearance - Super Bowl XLI, for one - always strange and beautiful. Rarely a week has gone by when I didn't dive into one of his records, and that will only continue to be the case in the future. The music remains but the man is gone, and it's gonna be lonely without him.
Radio AG Episode 017 Summer 2015
Coming at you in the last possible moment... here's a mix for the end of summer! Smack in the middle of a heatwave, you wouldn't know it to look outside. Sometimes, you've gotta heat it up in order to cool it back down.
- The Parallax Sound LabRadio AG Intro
- Black Grape Little Bob (Radioactive)
- Major Force Productions Sax Hoodlum (Major Force)
- Odd Squad Jazz Rendition (Rap-A-Lot)
- Lightnin' Rod with Jimi Hendrix Doriella Du Fontaine (Celluloid)
- Massive Attack Light My Fire (featuring Horace Andy) (Live) (Wild Bunch)
- Kendrick Lamar King Kunta (Top Dawg)
- The Orb Toxygene (Island)
- Keni Stevens Night Moves (Ultra-Sensual Mix) (Elite)
- Dâm-Funk We Continue (Stones Throw)
- Vangelis Let It Happen (Vertigo)
- Johnny Hammond Shifting Gears (Milestone)
- MC Kelz Clash Of The Beats (featuring Lynx) (Three Stripe)
- Marvin Gaye Anger (Tamla)
- Baris Manço Baykoca Destani (iii. Kara Haber - Turnanin Ölümü) (Yavuz Plak)
- Max 404 Steinfeld, Summer. 1982 (Eevo Lute)
- Eddie Russ Salem Avenue (Monument)
- Erykah Badu That Hump (Universal Motown)
- E.S.G. Anticipation (Perrion)
- SA-RA Creative Partners Hollywood (Redux) (Babygrande)
- Reload The Enlightenment (Infonet)
Welcome to the madness...
Shaun Ryder's post-Happy Mondays project finds him in league with one-half of the Ruthless Rap Assassins, just in time to bridge the gap between madchester and the dusted big beat excursions just around the bend. This is the closing track to It's Great When You're Straight...Yeah, a record I'd almost forgot about until very recently. It's even better than I remembered, and ended up being my soundtrack to this past summer.
A massive slab of breakbeat noise from this Japanese crew. Major Force were at the cutting edge of sampladelic hip hop, operating in parallel to figures like Bomb The Bass and The 45 King. This record came out a bit later, but still arrived in time for its fat, feedback-drenched basslines to predict The Chemical Brothers in Block Rockin' Beats mode. Mo Wax, in one of their periodic coups back in the nineties, put out an essential box set covering a wide swathe of Major Force's stellar output. It's still suprisingly findable, so don't hesitate!
Absolutely scorching moves from this Texas crew (featuring the inimitable Devin The Dude), flowing ruff, rugged and raw over a hype breakbeat and jazz shapes in fast-forward. I always did like a good uptempo rap, and this is about as good as it gets. The group's sole full-length, Fadanuf Fa Erybody, is a masterpiece of jazz-soaked Southern hip hop.
Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Miles jamming with Lightnin' Rod (Jalal Nuriddin of The Last Poets) back in 1969. As far as I know, it didn't see the light of day until 1984 when Celluloid issued it as a 12". You can see the basis for Hustlers Convention in not only its absorbing tale but that unstoppable, ever-building groove.
I actually heard this version before I got to hear the The Doors' original. It totally spun me around at the time, stripped down as it was and yet at the same time teeming with those half-lit rootsical vibes. That's Bristol for you. Daddy G hypes the crowd while Horace Andy does his inimitable thing over rugged breakbeats, video game bleeps emerging scattershot from the mix. When the horn solo hits, I'm 15 again.
To Pimp A Butterfly is a truly staggering album, housing a breadth of vision that is only surpassed by its depth of feeling. Hear it a dozen times and you've still only scratched the surface. I have a feature kicking around somewhere that places it squarely in the continuum stretching from Electric Ladyland to America Eats Its Young and beyond. I'll need to dig that up sometime. King Kunta plays like a call to arms, its momentum a chain reaction that builds and builds as Lamar's relentless flow culminates in a glorious will to power. You could write a whole book on this LP.
Toxygene apparently began life as a remix for Jean Michel-Jarre's Oxygene 7-13, but was ultimately rejected by Jarre and wound up on The Orb's Orblivion. Its blunted 4/4 dub stylings seem to draw on the sound of earlier classics like Perpetual Dawn and Blue Room, even as it threatens to surpass them in its carnivalesque grandeur and that casually monolithic stomp.
Ever since seeing Night Moves (with Gene Hackman), I've made it a mission to check out any song of the same title (even if Dee Dee Bridgewater's version, as heard in the Spring Mix, was already comfortably in the stacks by that time). I can't explain it, it's just one of my thangs. At any rate, I chanced into hearing this one and then managed to find it for next to nothing shortly after. It's quite simply one of the great atmospheric soul records of its era, up there with Mtume's Juicy Fruit and The Isley Brothers' Between The Sheets. The Ultra-Sensual Mix reshapes the original rhythm into a form not unlike Flynn's lightcycle, grooving light years smoother as if over the grid itself. Beyond that, it's pure atmosphere... reverb-draped vocals echo out into the distance while neon blue vectors scroll beneath a vast twilight landscape, crescent moon shimmering in the night sky.
I was lucky enough to catch Dâm-Funk at The Casbah a few weeks ago in what turned out to be a sold out show. It happened to be the same day his new album came out, so I snapped up a copy with the quickness. It finds the man emerging from behind his synths and taking the mantle of frontman, plying a sort of Ready For The World-esque electric funk. I've always loved the way he seems to split the difference between r&b and techno, and this finds him continuing in that mode. True machine soul.
Liquid, soothing kosmische folk from the man behind Blade Runner Blues. Crystalline rhodes dance across drifting currents of mellotron in an utterly absorbing swirl of cosmic psychedelia. Pure, glistening dreamtime music. This is one of those songs that everyone should get to hear at least once.
From the album Gears, one of the all-time greatest jazz funk records, sporting what may be the very best Mizell Brothers production of them all. Perfect soundscape after perfect soundscape. Keys in liquid rhodes cascade over rubberband basslines and crisp drum breaks; chants echo and repeat, existing as pure texture throughout. Another Green World music.
A Smith & Mighty beat for MC Kelz on their own Three Stripe imprint. If you're at all familiar with the duo's records then you know Kelz from later tunes like Seeds and the DJ-Kicks/I Don't Know remix. With Smith & Mighty, you can almost always count on those great three-dimensional beats cutting jagged through the mix, raw and with a true physical heft to them. This track later figured into The Three Stripe Collection, an unmissable mop up of classics from the label's short-lived run.
Perfection. I generally think of this as a rainy day record, but then I play it in the dead of summer and its gentle ARPs sound sun-glazed and the trees seem to sway with its beat in the sunset. It's that gaussian-blurred bluntedness that draws you in, and the nonchalant inevitability of that descending bridge that keeps your ears reaching out, as if grasping for the horizon.
From the epic suite that takes up most of the second side of his 2023, these flutes draw that beat out into the abyss.
Conversely, this is most likely a rainy day record even as I often peg it as a summer one. I remember finding it at the El Cajon Music Trader in the dead of August way back in the day. Here's a record that I wasn't expecting to ever get to hear, just sitting in the racks for a couple dollars! That shop was such a great font of electronic music almost in spite of itself (I need to write about this sometime). To this day, I can't imagine who was selling this stuff back used... but I'll always be grateful for the opportunity to have scooped it up at such an early stage in the game.
This one was a Kirk Degiorgio tip-off, from his OP-Art Hall Of Fame breakout of classic jazz and soul records. Another sterling jazz funk record, this time poised at the precipice of the disco age. Recorded at United Sound Studios, where George Clinton laid down his slew of classics around the same time, this is crammed with synths that seem to spring from the earth itself. The sleeve perfectly capturing the sun-kissed sounds contained within. Salem Avenue itself is exquisitely lush and deep-glazed in the heat of late summer. You can practically feel the steam rising from the asphalt.
From New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War), a record that has gone on to have lasting repercussions in the intervening years. I see the spirit of Black Messiah and To Pimp A Butterfly prefigured in this record's deeply furrowed grooves. The spectre of J Dilla looms large over the proceedings, while SA-RA were behind the mixing desk for large stretches and seemed to have had a huge hand in shaping the record's spaced-out, machine soul sound.
Quintessential low slung Texas hip hop, crafted by this central member of DJ Screw's clique. A heartbreaking record that happens to feature a gorgeous sun-kissed beat that rides a sizeable portion of The Bar-Kays' song of the same title, rolling in languid slow-motion.
As good a tune as any to illustrate the sort of music that I like. SA-RA were important to me because they seemed to make explicit the line stretching from machine soul like Mtume and Kleeer forward in time to Model 500 and Carl Craig into Timbaland and The Neptunes, a line that gradually became apparent to me around the turn of the century. Like Dâm-Funk, SA-RA seem to split the difference between r&b and techno, coming at it from a deeply spaced out, prog-inflected angle. Hollywood (Redux) itself sounds like nothing so much as Supa Dupa Fly beamed into Deep Space in search of an Intimate Connection.
Another chance encounter in the used racks, this time on the second floor of The Wherehouse across the street from Grossmont Center (do I ever miss that place!). I was pleasantly surprised to see this feature in Fact Magazine's The 100 Best Albums Of The Nineties recently. This record was something like Global Communication's unofficial debut, wherein savage industrial passages alternate with some of the most gorgeous ambient you could imagine (hinting at the inspired, schizophrenic path the duo would blaze throughout the rest of the decade).
This is the first of a four part series that I'll be unveiling over the next few months, each focusing on a different aspect of L.A. rap's sweep. As I noted earlier, an excellent DJ Quik show last week inspired me to put this together (to give credit where it's due). I'm no expert on the subject, but I've lived with this music since it was first coming out and it has continued to inform my listening habits in myriad ways through the years. After all, coming up in this era, with this music and parallel sounds from near and far providing the sonic atmosphere of the day, can have a profound effect on somebody...
As early as the late '70s, Uncle Jamm's Army and The Egyptian Lover were developing the earliest foundations of a distinct West Coast style that would culminate in prime L.A. electro like Egypt, Egypt and Dial-A-Freak in the early 80s. Within a few years, pioneers like Ice-T and Oakland's Too $hort began carving out a harder, street-level aesthetic that gradually began to supplant electro's popularity. Then, a crew called N.W.A. entered the Audio Achievements studio in Torrance, CA and started putting out records on their own Ruthless Records imprint, culminating in the seismic impact of their debut album Straight Outta Compton.
The five years between Straight Outta Compton and The Chronic were probably the most important stretch in the development of a distinctive West Coast sound, spanning the transition from N.W.A.'s hard, skeletal beats to Dr. Dre's fluid g-funk. This period was marked by extraordinary innovation, with a monumental soundclash of ideas and influences that would gradually be synthesized into a whole new thing. The following 14 records were all released within this timeframe, are undeniably classic material and trace this rough path of progression from Compton to The Chronic.
N.W.A. - Straight Outta Compton
Ground zero. The earlier N.W.A. And The Posse record was but a preview of things to come, pulling early singles and some hastily recorded material into one package. This is the true arrival. I was in elementary school when this record dropped, and by the end of the year everyone seemed to be talking about it. That's the level it got to. The influence of this record cannot be overstated (just compare the first Geto Boys album with the second, for one obvious example). It kicked open the door for everything that follows in this list.
The opening three tracks - Straight Outta Compton, Fuck Tha Police and Gangsta Gangsta - form one of the great opening salvos of all time, a pump-action barrage of street-level imagery delivered with a brutal intensity. For the purposes of this discussion, Gangsta Gangsta seems to be Dre's first stab at what would one day be called g-funk (check that rude Funky Worm synth whine coming in after the Way back... part). It's still too raw, the beats too rugged, to be considered g-funk proper, but the ingredients are all there just waiting to marinate a little longer.
There seems to be a bit of historical revisionism at the moment about this record, claiming that the opening three tracks are the only real substance it has to offer. Not true. The Dopeman (Remix) is an incisive look at the drug trade with a barely concealed rage bubbling beneath the surface, matching the fury of that opening rush, while tracks like 8 Ball (Remix), Parental Discretion Iz Advised and MC Ren's Quiet On Tha Set serve to further flesh out the world that this record inhabits. Express Yourself (Dre's solo shot) and I Ain't Tha 1 (Cube's requisite battle of the sexes rumble) both offer moments of levity, while Something Like That is a pure old school throwback showcase. Something 2 Dance 2 even closes things down with an electrofunk workout featuring the legendary Arabian Prince. They really did think of everything!
Eazy-E - Eazy-Duz-It
Released nearly simultaneously with Straight Outta Compton, and at the time taken more or less as a companion piece to that record. They'd usually be listened to side by side. Releasing the follow up so quickly on the heels of Compton was a shrewd move in retrospect. People were hungry for more.
This LP picks up where 8 Ball left off. A reckless ride through the wild side of the Ruthless funhouse, this party careens drunkenly through through the streets of L.A. with audacious Eazy-E acting as your unhinged tour guide. The Prelude recalls the sort of conceptual interlude Parliament specialized in, setting the tone for a particular sort of skit that would become an integral part of the landscape on West Coast records.
Where Compton had its share of hard, skeletal beats, the production feels slightly more fleshed out this time around (the Boyz-N-The Hood (Remix) notwithstanding). DJ Yella even gets in his first appearance behind the drumkit on 2 Hard Mutha's, an engaging sound that the group would engage in sporadically to fine effect. Even if Eazy-Duz-It doesn't hit with quite the same force as Straight Outta Compton, its incrementally looser rhythms and balanced sequencing do point the way toward the nineties.
Low Profile - We're In This Together
The first record in this list to come from outside the N.W.A. organization, this is a collaboration between West Coast stalwart W.C. and DJ Aladdin. Low Profile made their first appearance on the previous year's Rhyme Syndicate Comin' Through compilation with the show-stealing Think You Can Hang?. That track isn't here, but this phenomenal record expands on its foundation. From W.C.'s deft, conscious microphone delivery to DJ Aladdin's loose, fleshed out production and devastating turntable skills, this is truly advanced technology for '89.
This is something of a conscious flipside of the coin to a lot of the game related platters listed here. I've often felt that this is something of a West Coast counterpart to Gang Starr's Step In The Arena. An off the wall comparison, perhaps, but I couldn't resist making it! Keep Em Flowin' even sounds like a Jazzmatazz beat! Just listen to How Ya Livin' back to back with Step In The Arena (the track) and tell me I'm crazy. Of course, We're In This Together came out a whole year earlier...
None of the records here are obscure, but for the longest time this one was incredibly hard to come by. You'd hear it whispered about by people in the know (it had a fearsome reputation as a lost classic), but you'd never see it in the shops. It was actually easier to track down on wax, along with the accompanying 12" singles. Well, Universal Japan has just stepped in with their Classic Hip Hop Best Collection 1000 reissue program, featuring this record among their first brace of releases. Don't sleep!
The D.O.C. - No One Can Do It Better
The D.O.C. was N.W.A.'s secret weapon. Starting out as a member of the Ruthless-affiliated Fila Fresh Crew, the Dallas native set out for L.A. where he ghost-wrote some of N.W.A.'s rhymes behind the scenes. Here, he gets his chance to shine. Portrait Of A Master Piece is a literally breathtaking fast-forward deluge showcasing the state-of-the-art flow of one of the great uptempo lyrical stylists. Through the entirety of this sterling LP, The D.O.C.'s mic skills are top notch.
This album catches Dr. Dre treating Audio Achievements as his own personal laboratory, further elaborating the sound of the previous records into a high-octane formula that he would continue to tweak over the next couple years. With a few exceptions, the drums are tighter and more compact (as opposed to the booming big beat of the earlier records), while the production has become more crisp and the rhythms increasingly fluid, with a greater emphasis on live musicians (not to mention further welcome appearances by Yella behind the kit).
The Formula, Let The Bass Go and the title track are the first attempts at chilling out the Ruthless sound, slowing the tempos and cooling out the atmosphere in the process: an important step on the road to g-funk's genesis. These tracks themselves aren't g-funk per se, but the production is certainly starting to move further in that direction. The closing track, The Grande Finalé is a stunning posse cut, featuring the entirety of the original N.W.A. rhyming over a tremendous build up (pinned down by another ace breakbeat from Yella). If I'm not mistaken, this is the last time the original group would all be heard together on record.
Arabian Prince - Brother Arab
Oldskool renegade from the N.W.A. posse strikes out solo. The Arabian Prince actually had a history stretching back much further than the rest of the group, operating as a contemporary of The Egyptian Lover in the era of Uncle Jamm's Army, and consequently, much of this record is built on a heavy electro undercarriage. That's no bad thing, since Brother Arab is right at home in the form. This is a fascinating sound that he cooks up here, existing midway between his earlier records like Strange Life, It Ain't Tough and the sounds Dre essayed on The D.O.C. album. Gettin' Down even locks a loping blues guitar loop into a hypnotic groove with planet rocking 808 beats.
However, the exceptions to the rule might be even even more compelling. Let The Good Times Roll (Nickel Bag), a murky downbeat number built on an ever-tumbling breakbeat, is a fabulous bit of hip hop noir, while She's Got A Big Posse, the album's biggest single, rides a Zapp-esque bounce that totally prefigures the classic g-funk sound. To my mind, one of the crucial elements of g-funk is the linear quality of its groove, stretching horizontally into infinity (as opposed to hip hop's usual vertically arranged change-ups). What's missing here is the greater emphasis on live musicianship and those whining sinewave synths, but the groove is definitely in the same ballpark. Still not textbook g-funk, but certainly strong enough shades in evidence to warrant a proto- prefix.
Above The Law - Livin' Like Hustlers
This one's a giant step forward. Dr. Dre had a hand in producing this LP for these Ruthless proteges. Above The Law introduce a rolling, cinematic sweep to this music, evoking OSTs like Shaft and Truck Turner in its widescreen sensibility. Menace To Society is essentially a gangster film in miniature, while Murder Rap samples Quincy Jones' Ironside theme, establishing an intense, maddening atmosphere.
Another key development is the fact that ATL often operates on a laidback tip, as on Flow On (Move Me No Mountain) and Another Execution. Even on the uptempo numbers, they bring a nonchalant gangster lean to this material that would become a crucial element of the g-funk equation. N.W.A. even makes a cameo on The Last Song, certainly the most leisurely beat they'd yet been involved with.
ATL's Cold 187um and LayLaw later claimed to have invented the g-funk sound (developing it further on the following year's Vocally Pimpin' EP), influencing Dre in the process. Whatever the veracity of those claims, it's clear that this is the next step in the evolution, whether instigated by Above The Law or Dr. Dre (or both). The crew continued to hit hard on their second LP, Black Mafia Life, an excellent follow up that exists just outside the timeframe of this list: although it was completed before The Chronic, it wasn't released until early '93.
N.W.A. - 100 Miles And Runnin'
I've included three major N.W.A. records here, so crucial are they to the L.A. story. There's just no getting around their centrality. This EP was released on the heels of Ice Cube's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, and the title track seems to take on aspects of that record's monster production by The Bomb Squad. A widescreen epic running at a breakneck pace, it finds Dre splitting the difference between those uptempo D.O.C. tracks and Above The Law's cinematic sweep.
This EP also marks the beginning of the group's descent into pure nastiness, with Just Don't Bite It's lush production backing the sort of off-color humor that would really come to the fore on the following record. Still, Dre's production finesse is continuing to develop at a staggering rate. The intricate breakbeat rhythm of Real Niggaz and Sa Prize (Part 2)'s liquid groove both demonstrate the new forms that were materializing at Audio Achievements. If there were a symbolic midpoint between Straight Outta Compton and The Chronic, then this must be it.
WC And The Maad Circle - Ain't A Damn Thang Changed
WC again! Another Texan transplant (a bit of a pattern here), WC was always on his own level with a sort of street-level consciousness that always managed to sidestep preachiness and never failed to carry a fatal sting. This record finds The Maad Circle in its prime, with Coolio still in the fold (Fantastic Voyage and Gangsta's Paradise still a few years off), a steadfast Big Gee in evidence and kaleidoscopic production from Crazy Toones, Sir Jinx and WC himself.
It's tempting to read this LP as a bracingly aggressive, West Coast gangsta take on Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, so all-encompassing is its scope. With eagle eye observation and insight, tracks such as Fuck My Daddy (a rumination on the destructive impact of an abusive, no good, two-timing father) and Behind Closed Doors (a scathing indictment of police brutality - especially relevant in light of current events) tackle societal troubles head on and fill the corners of this LP with a richly detailed chronicle of life in south central L.A.
WC would later hook up with Ice Cube and Mack 10 in supergroup Westside Connection, finally receiving widespread recognition and going double-platinum in the process. However, this and the Low Profile record remain absolutely essential listening, together offering a crucial glimpse into the man's unique breadth of vision. Both LPs certainly belong in any serious conversation about the best albums (hip hop or otherwise) to come out of L.A.
Ice Cube - Kill At Will
Ice Cube blazed a fierce trail through the early nineties, starting with his Bomb Squad produced debut, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, and running through Death Certificate and The Predator at a blistering pace of one album every year - BAM BAM BAM! - and all within the timeframe of this list. The Kill At Will EP, released just after his debut, is my absolute favorite record of his. As a matter of fact, this just missed inclusion in The Parallax 100 (a decision that still keeps me up at night).
Building on the sonic foundation of The Bomb Squad's work, this EP's masterful beat construction - by Sir Jinx, Chilly Chill and Ice Cube himself behind the boards - result in some of his absolute finest moments. The Product is a searing avalanche of fury, and one of the hardest hip hop tracks ever conceived (in both form and content). Cube weaves like a boxer through this densely-populated sonic matrix, chronicling the unforgiving circumstances that conspire to drag a young brother under, all while riding a jagged, amped up breakbeat. Jackin' For Beats showcases a rotating selection of hype rhythm tracks, switching them up rapid fire beneath one of the fiercest flows in the business.
Dead Homiez is the flipside of the coin, with Cube reflecting on the mortality of himself and everyone around him over his own moody, half-lit downbeat production. There's a barely concealed desperation that creeps in through the cracks here, adding further context to the record's hardest moments. In just over twenty minutes, this EP runs the spectrum from rage to sorrow in an uncompromising vision of the world.
Ice-T - O.G. Original Gangster
As mentioned earlier, Ice-T looms large over L.A. hip hop, seemingly coming out of nowhere improbably early to lay the groundwork for the whole operation. Despite his comfortable niche with Law And Order nowadays, he deserves non-stop props for his trailblazing work as an innovator on the West Coast. His first three LPs are all crucial records, each providing an evolutionary step forward in development. O.G. Original Gangster finds him taking this sound into the nineties, moving with the times into an ever-funkier direction.
This is a sprawling double-LP that paradoxically finds Ice-T tightening his game. It sits comfortably with the surrounding records in this list, taking in some of their aspects even as it expands on them with a nearly unmatched breadth of vision. DJ Aladdin produces a handful of tracks here, including the awesome New Jack Hustler (originally appearing - along with Ice-T himself - in the excellent film New Jack City). The production is some of the loosest around, beats swerving and diving with a nimble touch, and often running at lightning speed. Ice-T is razor sharp on the mic, as usual, dropping gems left and right (I'm raised like a pit bull, my heart pumps nitro). Even the interludes are unforgettable.
N.W.A. - Efil4zaggin
The final N.W.A. album is a production tour de force. The beats on this record are simply phenomenal, taking the developments of 100 Miles And Runnin' to their logical conclusion. Dre's production arguably reaches its pinnacle of elegance here, weaving intricate tapestries of lush texture through sticky funk basslines and crisply executed breakbeats, resulting in one of the most compelling sounds in rap music (or any other, for that matter).
Rock hard tracks like Approach To Danger and Real Niggaz Don't Die recall Compton even as they transcend it, improbably revealing a turn-on-a-dime agility beneath their monumental heaviness. Both tracks are shot through with an unresolved tension that reaches its apex in the frenetic roll of Appetite For Destruction. Stretching even further toward the future, Alwayz Into Somethin' - laidback, cooled out and boasting those whining sinewave synths - is generally considered to be the first true g-funk tune to hit the shops.
Despite sagging into a mid-record sequence where the blue humor gets out of hand and veers into the intentionally offensive, the production remains top-notch throughout the entirety of this LP. In fact, it would easily stand on its own as an instrumental record. Dr. Dre would leave N.W.A. within the year, the group dissolving shortly after into solo careers, concluding one of the most impressive winning streaks in hip hop and quitting at the top of their game. For further reading, this excellent L.A. Times article is essential reading for anyone remotely interested in the N.W.A. story.
DJ Quik - Quik Is The Name
This is an unabashed party record, featuring a handful of uptempo numbers (reaching their frenetic peak in Tear It Off) but generally easing back into a first-rate selection of West Coast bounce. DJ Quik had the linear g-funk thang down from the word go, spooling deep, funky grooves out into infinity. Part of Quik's appeal is the fact his sound seems to spring directly from the old school electrofunk sound of One Way and Kleeer, transforming that sound into something that could weather the '90s.
Speaking of Kleeer, Quik Is The Name features an interpolation of their immortal Tonight in the rolling, endless Tonite, surely a textbook example of g-funk proper that prefigures the sound writ large on both The Chronic and Doggystyle. These moves continue in 8 Ball and permeate the entirety of this thoroughly loose LP. Quik's Groove, a gentle instrumental, lets the beats speak for themselves and betray Quik's love of pure electric funk.
The closing Skanless is an engaging slice of slow-motion downbeat featuring AMG, Hi-C and 2nd II None, seemingly hewn from a longer marathon groove. In 1991, DJ Quik was also involved with Hi-C's Skanless and AMG's Bitch Betta Have My Money, the latter of which is an even looser, albeit less consistent, loony cousin to this record's non-stop party moves. The other day, I forgot to mention this video, an amusing interview with DJ Quik at Amoeba Records, and this seems as good a time as any to get in a mention.
Compton's Most Wanted - Straight Checkn 'Em
It's difficult to choose the best CMW record. The outfit's first three albums, released in quick succession - one a year - starting in 1990, all have their strong points to recommend them. I tend to go back and forth. This one - their second - stands out for its loping downbeat rhythms and desolate atmosphere, what Peter Shapiro brilliantly referred to as DJ Slip's dark jazz. MC Chill was sentenced to prison between the release of CMW's debut - It's A Compton Thang - and the sessions for Straight Checkn 'Em, leaving MC Eiht as the solitary vocal presence, further cementing the prevailing mood of downcast isolation in evidence throughout.
With Slip and The Unknown DJ behind the mixing desk, the approach here seems to prefigure Dre's for the epochal Deep Cover (even if nothing here hits quite as hard as that tune). There's a casual fatalism to tracks like Def Wish and Growin' Up In The Hood that mark this LP out as a tour de force of gangsta-noir. Can I Kill It? even slips into the classic Footsteps In The Dark beat a whole year before Ice Cube would use it as the basis for his immortal It Was A Good Day. Indeed, whole sections of this record predict not only the sound of hip hop's eventual descent into darkness, but even seem to raise the spectre of trip hop's twisted methodology.
Dr. Dre - The Chronic
(Death Row: 1992)
Ready to leave N.W.A. and strike out on his own, Dr. Dre formed Death Row Records with Suge Knight and The D.O.C., kicking off the next chapter of the L.A. story. Dre's first solo record was Deep Cover (from the soundtrack to film of the same name), featuring vocals from a then-unknown Snoop Doggy Dogg. A Death Row release in all but name - it technically came out on Solar - Deep Cover was the first warning shot of things to come on Dre's full-length debut.
Snoop's off the wall personality inhabits this record. Tracks like Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat and The Day The Niggaz Took Over continue to develop the dread atmosphere of Deep Cover, yet that's only the tip of the iceberg. The Chronic is where Dre nails down g-funk as a formula, utilizing live musicians to create rolling epics such as Fuck Wit Dre Day and Nuthin' But A "G" Thang. It's important to note the importance of Dre's earlier experiments with smoother, more r&b-based material on his productions for artists like Michel'Le and Jimmy Z in developing the clean, polished sounds of The Chronic. The sun-glazed vibes of a track like Let Me Ride seem to flow directly from those smooth sonics.
Built on a sizeable chunk of Parliament's Mothership Connection, Let Me Ride is just one example of p-funk's totemic importance throughout this record. Indeed, George Clinton interpolations are the order of the day here, cropping up all over the place. Between L.A. and Detroit, Clinton's influence seemed to be everywhere in the nineties. If you were aiming for the dancefloor - be it hip hop, r&b or techno - p-funk loomed large over the decade's excursions into rhythm.
Remaking hip hop in the image of earthshaking electric funk, The Chronic changed the face of West Coast rap and became its dominant sound for the foreseeable future. It's usually a stretch to put sea changes down to a single record, but this truly is a case where one record did provide that watershed moment. At the height of the sampladelic age, it opened rap up once again to the possibilities of both live playing and synthesized textures on the widest scale imaginable. As its sound quickly spread worldwide, reverberations began to be felt everywhere, and one could largely trace the direction hip hop has taken in the ensuing years back to this record. Much like Straight Outta Compton before it, The Chronic catalyzed a whole new thing into existence that had to be acknowledged one way or the other. The rest is history...