Earlier this year, my sister-in-law posed the question as to whether the album was still relevant. A timely question, to be sure. Folk have been declaring the death of the album for years now, but in truth it has always supported less volume than the 7" single (for instance). The 7" single was traditionally the great equalizer, the point of entry - and proving ground - for breaking artists. This was the format in which The Standells could hope to go toe to toe with The Rolling Stones in the charts. It remained the prime habitat for many scenes (reggae and punk, for example) long after the album rose to prominence.
Similarly, the 12" single was but an elaboration on the format, its extended running time ideal for the demands of the dancefloor. But the album... the album was something different altogether. In most genres only the auteurs get around to making them, and even some of the greatest artists never did (either by choice or due to circumstance). However, there's no getting around the fact that its been a fixture of the music industry for well over sixty years. So perhaps it would be valuable to go back to the root of the format for a moment.
The long-playing album initially took hold in the 1950s, when it finally supplanted the 70rpm shellac discs that had been the industry standard since the 1920s. The format was a clear winner in that it was both far sturdier than the often brittle shellac discs and could store far more music (22 minutes per side, as opposed to the five minute limit of the original 70rpm discs).1 This made the format ideal for compilations, often pulling together a brace of singles or other previously released materials into one succinct package. In fact, some of the earliest LPs were enhanced/extended versions of 10" records like Chet Baker Sings, Billie Holiday's Solitude2 and Thelonious Monk's Genius Of Modern Music.
Rather quickly, certain artists gravitated to the format. Frank Sinatra famously took to the form, crafting themed records like Songs For Swingin' Lovers and In The Wee Small Hours. The album was also a crucial showcase format for early rock and blues - artists like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Howlin' Wolf - often rolling some contemporary singles and a handful of new tracks into a discrete work. Yet if there was one scene that really embraced the format from the word go, it was jazz. The album rather quickly became the base unit of the genre, even beating rock 'n roll to the punch in the process.
Indeed any thoughtful round up of great albums from the 1950's would be littered with jazz: from John Coltrane's Blue Train to Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, there's a veritable treasure trove of delights nestled within the decade. Duke Ellington famously dove headfirst into the format with longform works like Such Sweet Thunder and Black, Brown And Beige, with often sterling results.
Now the sixties are when the album really began to gain steam as a cultural force, with the twin innovations of hard bop and free jazz making their home on the format. Blue Note alone moved a serious number of units in the first half of the decade. Then, coming from rock 'n roll, artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan worked out further possibilities of the form, with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band arguably giving birth to the concept album, and Blonde On Blonde inaugurating the era of the gatefold double-album. The floodgates opened when artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane all turned out deeply conceptual albums within the span of a single year, and as the decade came to a close Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd - artists that would come to define the album-as-artistic-statement in the popular imagination throughout the seventies - made their initial splash.
Soul music - despite its erstwhile status as a singles genre - began generating great albums as early as Booker T. & The M.G.'s Green Onions through Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin's sterling run, along scores of great Motown records (even before Marvin and Stevie rewrote the rulebook3).
If there's one decade where the album peaked then it was the seventies. This the era of progressive rock - progressive everything, truth be told - with genres as disparate as rock, funk, reggae and even bluegrass stretching out into longform works (sometimes even filling a song to a side). Krautrock too, despite a brace of great singles, was thoroughly in thrall to the form. Indeed most rock - bar glam, and even that had it's slew of classic LPs from the likes of T. Rex to The Sweet - was centered on the form (contrasted with the amount of Nuggets bands that might have only had one or two singles to their name when all was said and done). David Bowie is an excellent example of this phenomenon in action, cutting a string of classic albums spanning the entirety of the decade - even the ones deemed disappointments at the time have long since been reappraised - while still managing to service the jukeboxes with red hot singles like Golden Years and Suffragette City.
It was around this time that the double-album became commonplace, while the live album blossomed into a key pillar of the album market (the two overlapping as often as not). Soul got increasingly conceptual as well, signposted by Curtis Mayfield's unparalleled winning streak to James Brown's extended cold sweat workouts, reaching its culmination with the ongoingParliament/Funkadelic saga. Even reggae - that stalwart of the 7" single - was knee deep in elpees as the decade wound down, informing the ascendant post punk in the process (with PIL's Metal Box playing with the format itself). It's at this moment, coinciding with the rise of disco, that the 12" single begins to be felt as a presence.
As a result of the restored primacy of the dancefloor, or perhaps the proverbial pendulum swinging back from the conceptual overload of the 1970s, the eighties in many ways seemed to place the focus squarely on the single. Think New Order's Blue Monday, for instance, an event release comparable to the marquee albums of the previous decade. Still, there was a healthy crop of great LPs peppered through the 1980s, with The Clash even cutting their Sandinista! triple-LP at the dawn of the decade. Shortly thereafter came the early stone tables of alternative, classics along the lines of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime mapping out the form (both of them doubles, in fact).
Prince traversed the decade much like Bowie had the decade prior with a near-spotless sequence of classic albums (even if, like Bowie, he still had a penchant for the single form). In truth a lot of singles genres still managed to toss up a smattering of killer albums. I'm thinking of Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Alexander O'Neal's self-titled debut (on the electrofunk and modern soul tip, respectively), not to mention Scientist's storied dub reggae slates and choice dancehall long-players from the likes of Tiger, Tenor Saw and Yellowman.
And of course hip hop began developing into an album form as the decade progressed - even if it remained largely singles-based: only the big boys got to do albums - and as it drew to a close, the rap album became a matter of course, a given. See any number of LPs that routinely make greatest-ever album lists: N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and BDP's Criminal Minded. Similarily, house music produced its own series of classic albums from producers like Larry Heard and Lil' Louis as the decade drew to a close. You can't knock something like Virgo's self-titled album from 1989.
Aside from dance music - which here in the states the mainstream all but ignored most of the time (to its shame) - the nineties were a big return to the album format, with big ticket releases like Nirvana's Nevermind and Dr. Dre's The Chronic becoming event releases on par with Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side Of The Moon. Hip hop leapt confidently into its full-tilt album phase, with bizarre longform works by the likes of Redman and The Wu-Tang Clan as gnarled as anything out of the progressive seventies, and focused on conceptuality to boot. Even in dance music and electronica, surely the textbook definition of a singles genre, loads of great albums surfaced over the course of the decade, records I wouldn't want to live without. There are practically oceans of great techno LPs from both sides of the Atlantic, from Model 500's Deep Space to Bandulu's Cornerstone. Even steadfast vinyl mystics Basic Channel put out a series of CDs that rounded up their 12" work into an album-like shape.
Similarily, jungle - like reggae, a quintessentially singles-based genre - had a knack for pulling together a great full-length record, with 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and Kemet Crew's Champion Jungle Sound practically serving as twin sides to the same coin. Kevin Pearce's excellent A Cracked Jewel Case really immerses itself in this territory, unearthing forgotten CD releases from various artists scattered throughout the dance continuum. In truth, many of my own personal favorites populate the pages of that book, as up until late in the decade I was largely reliant on albums to get the fix I was after. It took awhile before I could afford turntables, so I was consuming nearly all of this music in the form of CDs (I'd scoop up nearly everything I could on Submerge and Studio !K7), and I'd go to bat for a great many of them. I actually have a half-finished breakout on that very subject - 20 great dance CDs - kicking around somewhere.
At the turn of the century, there were almost too many great albums to keep tracks of: Radiohead's Kid A, Oukast's Stankonia, Daft Punk's Discovery and Isolée's Rest, spring to mind immediately, while bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes turned out classicist LPs in a new wave style. It was largely business as usual, the seventies' shadow that hung over the nineties gave way to the eighties and all the attendant reference points.
The party continued largely uninterrupted through 2006 (the year of Ghostface's Fishscale, J Dilla's Donuts and Avatar by Comets On Fire), but as the decade wore on you could slowly feel the care slipping from the form, with albums seeming to grow less consistent by the year. Records like Erykah Badu's New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) and The Good, The Bad & The Queen's debut came correct but suddenly they felt like disconnected islands rather than part of any greater scene or grouping... and the water separating them was cold indeed! The trend became more glaring as the decade wore on, and indeed continues right up to the present day.
Which brings us back to the question at hand: is the album format still relevant? I'd say yes indeed, and without a moment's hesitation. Records like Kelela's awesome Cut 4 Me) and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly stand out as recent examples of unmissable album experiences. As much as people talk about just singling out tracks and making playlists (not that there's anything wrong with that), I think there will always be call for the sustained experience of a full-length album. There's just too much that can be done with the format that can't be found anywhere else. Burial hardly would have made sense as a singles artist (even if I'm sure there's plenty who singled out Raver and left it at that).
So I think there's still life in this little format from the fifties after all, and I wouldn't doubt that it still has a few surprises hidden up its sleeve. With even the reigning chart royalty - figures like Beyoncé, Kanye and Taylor Swift - clearly putting a lot of work into crafting coherent album-length statements, it remains a crucial part of the pop music experience. So go ahead and spin that record from start to finish if you please, because the album is here to stay.
Looking down from the Georgia Street bridge, into North Park and the place where it all went down, and the memories of the early days of Radio AG come flooding back.
While uploading the first five episodes of Radio AG over the past few weeks, I was struck by how rough a lot of the mixing was! Sure, partially this was down to being rusty (I'd taken a hiatus from spinning and music production to concentrate on finishing school), but I also suspect it was due to the fact that for the first time I was grappling with a lot of material that wasn't typically intended to be found in the mix.
Up until then, I'd primarily spun techno and house, on the one hand, or downbeat rap and trip hop, on the other. Mixing disparate selections from the sixties, alternative, new wave and so forth - much of it music that wasn't made with the DJ in mind - well, it was like learning to mix all over again. The first year was pretty ramshackle, truth be told, but it was an enjoyable experiment in figuring how to segue between tracks of such varying structure and sequence them to successfully carry a sustained mood (I wouldn't figure out the latter until the following year!)
In retrospect, I'd always tended to approach spinning from more of an electro/hip hop mindset anyway, playing with cuts and juxtaposition, whereas the general tendency with minimal techno at the time was to work gradual fades between similar tunes. The pivotal moment for me was hearing Kevin Saunderson scratch into Carl Craig's Piano Mix of R-Tyme's Use Me (on his X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio mix): this was everything I wanted dance music to be. On the flipside - the trip hop side - Terranova's DJ-Kicks was a revelatory experience, boasting a broad selection taking in hip hop, dub, post punk, electro and Detroit techno, all while maintaining a consistently vivid atmosphere throughout. Listening to both of these mixes for the first time - within months of each other! - was quite simply a mind-expanding experience, changing the way I listened to music from that point forward.
As such, when I put together the original Allied Heights mix (back in 2002), it already seemed natural to drop things like The B-52's Mesopotamia and Brian Eno & David Byrne's The Jezebel Spirit - not to mention Derrick May's remix of Tired Of Getting Pushed Around for 2 Men A Drum Machine And A Trumpet - in the mix alongside prime techno cuts like Scan 7's Black Moon Rising, The Martian's Meet The Red Planet and UR's Electronic Warfare, opening up plenty of real-estate for raw house material like the KSR Vocal Mix of Octave One's Blackwater, Susumu Yokota's discoid fantasy Future Memory and Carl Craig's awesome garage-tinged A-Dub Mix of The Reese Project's I Believe. There were even a couple brand new Shadez Of Colour cuts - that were just about to be pressed up at NSC in Detroit - slipped into the mix. It was a nice little mix that captured a time when things where humming in the Heights and it seemed as if it would go on that way forever...
But I'd be out of the game in a matter of months, commencing a roughly two-year period during which school, work and other real world commitments managed to monopolize my time completely. The music was still there, however, and I'd spent those years exploring other sounds: lines of flight into the wider world via the post punk (PIL, Mark Stewart, etc.) and reggae (King Tubby, Horace Andy, etc.) that I'd become aware of thanks to trip hop, and the funk (Parliament/Funkadelic, Sly & The Family Stone, etc.), synth (Kraftwerk, YMO, etc.) and jazz (Herbie Hancock, Sun Ra, etc.) music that techno had tuned me into along the way. Winding back through seventies soul into the sixties - Stax and Motown - on a similar tip and sideways into krautrock, prog and arty seventies music like Roxy Music (by way of Brian Eno), it was only a matter of time before I'd worked my way back into the sixties: The Beatles, The Byrds, Hendrix and beyond.
At the end of 2004, I moved out with a couple of mates into a spot over by Balboa Park that we came to call the 1808. The scene that coalesced around the place centered on what you might call the indie rock set, with various bands and scenesters in orbit, doing their thing. I was mainly rocking out to grime like Wiley's Treddin' On Thin Ice, Dizzee Rascal's second album and the Run The Road compilation, plus Roni Size's Return To V - which seemed to key into the same prevailing mood - along with Moodymann's Black Mahogani, Amp Fiddler's Waltz Of A Ghetto Fly and Theo Parrish (with material like The Rotating Assembly's Rusty Waters in constant rotation). There was a solid weekly techno night at the Honey Bee Hive (just up the street), and I did manage to catch the odd desert rave with Snakes and crew, but all of a sudden it seemed like indie rock was everywhere and dance was hard to find. This felt something like the wilderness years, and I was a stranger in a strange land.
So I decided to go back to my roots and start a mixtape series that would take in a bunch of the stuff I grew up on, before I'd even really struck out on my own, musically speaking. I'd basically started out in new wave with Adam Ant and Depeche Mode, along with eighties dance pop like the Jacksons Michael and Janet, before hip hop and swingbeat rolled into town. So why not start there - since this was more or less the lingua franca of my intended audience anyway - sprinkling in an ever increasing dose of beats and atmosphere along the way? Radio AG was born.
The idea at first was to construct a mix in the same way the closing song cycle from the second side of Abbey Road was structured, drifting from one pop song to the next in a kinetic flow. Along with my bedrock of past favorites, I'd lean on everything I'd picked up in the interim, ranging from Can to The Beach Boys and even some of the indie stuff I'd picked up like the Pixies (rock hard beats for miles) and Pavement (whose Jackals, False Grails: The Lonesome Era is basically a breakbeat dance track). Going back into the nineties, my hip uncle Matt from Chicago had tuned me into all sorts of great power pop and indie dance (like Blur, Happy Mondays and so on) that had a profound shaping influence on me at the time. This material flowed logically into groups like Gorillaz (Albarn and Ryder, together), A.R. Kane and The Beta Band that I'd later crossed paths with via dance music, and all of it would in turn form part of the foundation of the series.
So I did one mix, and then another. And then another. By October, I'd knocked out a fifth episode - The Halloween Special - and the series had become a reality. I was pulling in shipments from Submerge on a monthly basis, their shelves still stocked with the finest Detroit techno in abundance. A few months later, I crossed paths with SA-RA and Hot Chip. Woebot dropped his 100 Greatest Records Ever on New Years Day. Suddenly things didn't seem so lonely anymore. And then, couple weeks later I'd move in with my brother Brian - the same place where I live today - and dig into the next chapter of the Radio AG saga. But that's another story for another day!
A few years back, I started a limited series in which I'd post a weekly tune that was locked into the celestial. I called it Deep Space Music. It was loosely inspired, as is much of what I do, by something a bunch of forward-thinking cats did in Detroit back in the day. In this case, it was Deep Space Radio, a series of transmissions made in the mid-nineties in which people like Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson would spin far out techno and house over the city's airwaves, culminating in Saunderson's masterful X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio mix.
My own excursion was a much more minimal affair, hosted on the old version of this very site, titled (rather unimaginatively) Deep Space Music. It involved simply tossing up one tune a week - for just under a year - from one summer to another, spanning between 2012 and 2013. The idea was that each song would flow into the next as one long suite, thematically speaking, the patchwork whole unfolding like the weekly sci-fi serials of old. At any rate, it proved to be an enjoyable exercise and hopefully tuned some people into some great music in the process.
In researching a monster piece I've been working on lately (and coming at you in the near future), I'd been digging through the interplanetary archives and - in the process - discovered a tracklist of all the tunes that featured in the series. I'd nearly forgotten about the whole enterprise, but seeing as it fits in thematically with the trip we've been on lately I thought it might be illuminating to beam the results back to earth, commenting on each selection in the process.
You'll notice that a lot of these tunes have continued to crop up in the intervening years, via mixes and even featured in The Parallax 100, which should highlight the centrality of this selection to my own musical tastes. All of these should be relatively easy to get your ears on nowadays, via Youtube or some other means (like picking up the record, perhaps), so if something sounds enticing you know what to do...
- Ashford & Simpson Babies (Dub Version) (Capitol, 1984)
- Mtume The After 6 Mix (Juicy Fruit Part II) (Epic, 1983)
- Kleeer Tonight (Atlantic, 1984)
- Drexciya Running Out Of Space (Tresor, 1999)
- Slam Visions (featuring Dot Allison) (Soma, 2001)
- Keni Stevens Night Moves (Ultra-Sensual Mix) (Elite, 1985)
- Sun Palace Rude Movements (Passion, 1983)
- Yage Theme From Hot Burst (Jumpin' & Pumpin', 1992)
- The Isley Brothers Voyage To Atlantis (T-Neck, 1997)
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience 1983...(A Merman I Should Turn To Be) (Reprise, 1968)
- Fluke Kitten Moon (Astralwerks, 1997)
- Kleeer Tonight (SA-RA Remix featuring The SA-RA All Stars & Me'Shell NdegéOcello) (Rhino, 2005)
- Octave One Nicolette (430 West, 1991)
- Joe Gibbs & The Professionals Idlers Rest (Joe Gibbs, 1977)
- Leon Ware Tamed To Be Wild (United Artists, 1972)
- Jackson And His Computer Band Utopia (Warp, 2005)
- Beanfield Keep On Believing (Compost, 1997)
- Medeski Martin + Wood Midnight Birds (SA-RA Remix) (Main) (Blue Note, 2005)
- Jay Dee Think Twice (BBE, 2001)
- Smith & Mighty DJ-Kicks/I Don't Know (featuring Alice Perera) (12" Mix 1) (Studio !K7, 1998)
- Me'Shell NdegéOcello Come Smoke My Herb (Maverick, 2003)
- Divine Styler In A World Of U (Maverick, 2003)
- The Police Walking On The Moon (A&M, 1979)
- Simple Minds Veldt (Arista, 1979)
- Dexter Wansel Solutions (Philadelphia International, 1978)
- The Steve Miller Band Sacrifice (Capitol, 1977)
- Roy Ayers Ubiquity The Memory (Polydor, 1976)
- Marvin Gaye A Funky Space Reincarnation (Tamla, 1978)
- Bobby Lyle Inner Space (Capitol, 1978)
- Psyche Neurotic Behavior (Planet E, 1989)
- The Martian Skypainter (Red Planet, 1995)
- Freq Waveaura (Matrix, 1995)
- E-Dancer World Of Deep (KMS, 1997)
- Virgo Ride (Radical, 1989)
- Dark Energy Midnite Sunshine (Underground Resistance, 1994)
- Reload Ehn (Infonet, 1993)
- Plaid Spudink (Warp, 1997)
- China Crisis Jean Walks In Freshfields (Virgin, 1982)
- Double Helix Low Key (Rush Hour, 2002)
- Kraftwerk Spacelab (Kling Klang, 1978)
- Queen In The Space Capsule (Love Theme) (Elektra, 1981)
- Mr. Fingers Stars (Jack Trax, 1987)
- Dâm-Funk Keep Lookin' 2 The Sky (Stones Throw, 2009)
- Mýa Mýa (Interscope, 1998)
- DJ Mitsu The Beats Negative Ion (featuring Ainjoy McWhorter) (SA-RA Remix) (Planetgroove, 2004)
- SA-RA Creative Partners Hollywood (Redux) (Babygrande, 2007)
The journey starts with rolling drums and guitars chiming off into the event horizon. Spacious pads with a graviational pull all their own drift through the mix, that gently chugging bassline seems to propel this ship through the vastness of space in ethereal slow-motion. Don't you know that I live for this sort of thing? This a François Kevorkian perpertrated dub of Ashford & Simpson's original (from their Solid LP), stretching it out across timespace with just a snatch of the original vocal. When Nickolas Ashford drops right into the mix, singing The love story's true, they didn't change me and you..., the track seems to stop and rebuild itself right before your eyes.
Another flipside excursion, another featuring just a snatch of vocal input and another one of my favorite songs of all time. The original has one of the great synth progressions ever, pulling you in with a gliding futuristic optimism (think Tommorowland), but this second part - stripping the track to its essentials - is true space capsule music. You find yourself waiting for the synthesized bass sound that just oozes into the track every other bar. Hearing this for the first time was one of those pivotal moments in my life, like a parallel universe unfolding before me, and everything contained within was right up my alley. I remember rustling up the album and 12" within weeks!
This tune and much of what follows are what I like to call Machine Soul, in essence a sonic strand stretching from Mtume through Model 500, into Timbaland and beyond.
This one takes me back to sun-glazed days in late summer, playing video games on the Atari 2600 (truly ancient technology by that point in the mid-nineties), tripping out to Solaris and the sound of machine rhythms in the scorching heat. This track was the basis for DJ Quik's Tonite, its rubberband, synthetic bassline spreading deep into the DNA of g-funk. True machine soul, you can picture yourself listening in some perfectly-engineered alien vessel, gliding over a neon vector landscape in the night.
Perfection in just under two minutes, this would lend itself to a killer 7" single. That's a whole category unto itself. Sounding almost as if Tonight were fast-forwarded - all sonics twisted and filtered through fifteen years of electro boogie science - the track swoops and shudders on a nimble machine-funk rhythm before dissolving into a majestic, beatless coda. You could run a starship on that. Drexciya of course representing the life aquatic, they seem to be just as much at home in the deep black of space.
Turn-of-the-century Glasgow. A killer pop song seemingly sprung from the subconscious. The atmosphere heavy like a black hole, that shrouded bassline rising from within, drawing you deeper and deeper into gravity's pull. At the center of it all is Dot Allison), serenading the night skies in a druggy murmur. The song explodes into some psychedelic vision of deep space r&b, glowing shards of funky synthetic sound spiralling off into the stratosphere, northern lights ablaze.
I've gone digital about this one before. You're gliding across the grid, vectors scrolling under a moonlit sky, landscapes parallaxing in the distance. Keni Stevens drapes his absolute smoothest, most delicate voice over an elegant neon-lit groove, all the parts moving in perfect unity. The vocal and instrumental versions of the Ultra-Sensual Mix run together on the vinyl, giving you eleven and a half minutes of supersonic pleasure.
I've noted before (another repeat!) how this record comes on like Carl Craig and Hall & Oates making music together in an elevator. I stand by that. Eighties smooth jazz isn't supposed to sound this exciting, but every element in this tune mixes together into the perfect palette and, against all odds, feels absolutely timeless. The perfect (quiet) storm.
An exclusive from the excellent Earthbeat compilation, an indispensable round-up of glistening techno produced by a pre-FSOL Dougans and Cobain. Crystalline synths drift whimsical over stuttering breakbeats, muted rave sounds trill just below the surface, with everything submerged in a deep, oceanic calm. Almost freeform in its construction, this track simply shimmers.
Why don't The Isley Brothers get more love? They're easily the equal of giants like Led Zeppelin or Stevie Wonder. What gives? They have loads of great records. This from their seventies 3 + 3 period - when the group's ranks swelled to six - in which they operated as purveyors of fine funk and peerless, sun-glazed soul. Voyage To Atlantis itself sways in stately slow-motion, exit music for a film. Cosmic, elegaic and beautiful.
Aquatic, like Drexciya, but in tune with the cosmos. Hendrix got his start playing guitar with The Isleys before going down in history as arguably the greatest guitarist of all (the Forever riff in this song is one of the most inspiring things I've ever heard done with an electric guitar). This record finds him equally adept at using the studio as an instrument unto itself, rolling various movements and spaced out interludes into a nearly fourteen-minute sonic tapestry that works seamlessly as one long, flowing piece. The result is simply breathtaking.
The better part of this album, Risotto, is pretty spaced out as a rule, and I could have used anything from the blunted black hole trip Bermuda to the alien frequencies of Reeferendum to make the same point. However, Kitten Moon eclipses all other candidates with its relentless, chugging rhythm and a drop into pure atmosphere that leaves you standing on the edge of infinity.
The original Kleeer classic (heard above) has a long history of affection among electronic funk connoisseurs. SA-RA turn in what is, in truth, more an outright cover than a remix. I love how they take the relatively minimal original - a tune that seems deeply influential to their own group's aesthetic - and go all out with it, stretching out in widescreen with a big band in tow (including the inimitable Me'Shell NdegéOcello), with no expense spared. Sparkling in the discotheque.
Octave One embody a certain sonic perfection, working out the internal logic of techno and house to arrive at a streamlined form that sounds unlike anything else. This from their classic Octivation EP, following on the heels of their debut I Believe. Detuned bleeps spill out from a low slung rhythm, the fusion of shuffling 909 beats and a wandering analog bassline, synth washes flowing beneath it all in such a way that r&b stations should've been playing it. In a word, DEEP.
Intergalactic dub reggae, sounding not unlike SA-RA holed up at the Black Ark. Hard to believe it's from 1977. Rock hard beats and bottomless bass kick into gear with siren synths blazing high up above. This from the second volume in Joe Gibbs' excellent African Dub All-Mighty series, which I was lucky enough to snag at Reggae World some years back (and just in time to spin at a New Years Eve party later that night).
Motorik machine soul from the first solo shot by this songwriter in the shadows. Think Suicide. Leon Ware growls over a chugging blues beat, rolling pianos and electronic bass that zig-zags beneath brooding verses before exploding into that near-gospel chorus. Ancient synths droning into infinity. It's all very Warp Records. Ware well-documented as a songwriting auteur, with Motown and Marvin Gaye, in particular (look no further than I Want You for the proof), benefiting from his way with the pen. Check those credits - from Quincy Jones to Minnie Riperton to The Jackson Five - he's everywhere!.
I remember being stumped as to how to follow up the previous track - so doggedly singular was that grinding tronik soul stormer - but this convoluted electro/house burner from the French auteur Jackson Fourgeaud did the trick. Intricate and overloaded, this track is - simply put - a monster. The whole of it seems constructed from shards of sound - electronic glitches and vocal snatches - shattered into a million pieces only to be reconstructed into a skewed vision of disco, churning under waves of droning sonics before dropping out into that heavenly chorus. Have you ever thought about utopia? Utterly bizarre, yet I challenge anyone not to be hooked by the second listen.
My brother Matt and I used to be obsessed with this tune. Still are, truth be told. One of my go-to tracks in defense of the practice of sampling. This tune essentially mashes up Vangelis' Let It Happen and the batucada drums from Costa-Gavras' Z (Mikis Theodorakis in full effect), filtering them through deep space sonics and winding up with something utterly singular. But where did those blues vocals come from?
More SA-RA. They're all over the place in this break out! The MMM original is a swaying mirage of interstellar exotica, but the SA-RA version takes it on a wild, tangled trip into the unknown. Busting out wrongfooted on the 4/4 - like if J Dilla made a house track - this multi-part dancefloor burner seems fueled on unstable elements, kicking into a juke joint mid-section before it all collapses inna staggering machine rhythm that just disolves into stray synths in the moonlight. The life and death of a star.
Speaking of J Dilla, this deep slab of downbeat bliss from Welcome 2 Detroit is the square root of all manner of twisted machine soul that's tumbled out of this blessed millennium so far. This could go on for hours and I wouldn't get bored. The Donald Byrd bit that goes Your love's like fire and ice, that's why we've got to think twice, followed by a little trumpet flourish, is catchier than most songs you hear on the radio. Then it flies off on a variation, the piano jukes then goes left, before once again drifting somewhere else entirely.
It's beginning to feel almost as if I subconsciously drew from this nearly forgotten list when mixing last year's Radio AG transmissions! I suppose that speaks to their closeness to my heart (aww!). This one's so tied up with my own memories and experiences that I don't know where to begin. You just want to curl up inside the warmth of this song. In the surrounding context, it plays like a companion piece to The Martian's Sex In Zero Gravity: a love from outer space.
Comfort Woman - the record from which this track springs - is on some serious Hendrix-level astral plane, its space rock dynamics swooping and shuddering in graceful slow-motion through the reggaematic machinery of dub. This is deep space as a return to the womb, and it's the swooning blur of Come Smoke My Herb that offers up the record's simplest, most exquisite pleasure: walking on air.
In between Styler's old school debut and underground return lies Spiral Walls Containing Autumns Of Light, a record that draws on space rock, industrial and fusion as much as hip hop. This tune in particular is coming from somewhere else! There's that inevitable, descending chord progression - guitars running through sheets of chorus, trilling off into delicate metallic solos - rolling drums and Divine Styler's druggy murmur at the center of it all, cut adrift in wholly expansive innnerspace.
Everybody knows this one, and for good reason. Andy Sumner's guitars chime into the endless deep while Stewart Copeland taps out a beat that seems to obey the laws of lunar gravity rather than the Earth's, and Sting sounds without a care in the world. I remember a particularly dark night back in the day when I listened to this song on repeat, non-stop until I eventually drifted off to sleep.
Early Simple Minds records are doubtless a treasure trove of weird new wave, but you'll also find some of the most atmospheric instrumentals of their era... or any other for that matter. Perfectly conjuring up visions of the titular African plains at dusk, strange shapes shifting in the darkness, this brings to mind Suburban Knight's The Art Of Stalking. I swear that you can hear mid-period FSOL in this densely articulated atmosphere. The first time I heard it, I thought What's going on now?! Today it might be my favorite thing on the album.
Philly soul craftsman gets loose in the studio, shearing into incandescent jazz funk. The song drifts in and out into radio transmissions - presumably picked up in deep space - chronicling the struggles of present-day Earth. Not much has changed! Wansel croons in silk over luminescent organs and a rubber-synth bassline, fragile and exquisite. A minor r&b hit at the time, it's a wonder this tune isn't more widely known.
Glorious tripped out pop-psychedelia from the original space cowboy. Crystalline rhodes shimmer in the moonlight over a downbeat rhythm, while Steve Miller pulls liquid shapes from his guitar and sings moody lines in the foreground. I've always been a sucker for that vibrato thing he tends to do with his voice: What a sacrifiyiyice.... This is, in essence, a jazz funk record. Which leads us into...
DEEP jazz funk. The deepest. Drawing you slow-motion tumbling into a black hole, shadows and sound swirling all around, it seems to have a gravity all its own. Feel Surreal. Those drums are rock hard, pounding a tripped-out beat while deep Moog bass textures curl beneath. Liquid keys shimmer and gamma ray ARPs stream like sunlight through the darkness. Innerspace music and subconscious soul, this track embodies the haunting words of its refrain.
Taken from Gaye's exquisite kiss off Here, My Dear. I remember buying the record thinking, Well, it's supposed to be one of his weaker ones but I love What's Going On and then being completely blown away. A Funky Space Reincarnation has Gaye drifting through images of mental deep space travel over a downbeat disco rhythm - sort of half-singing/half-rapping - commenting on the sights he encounters along the way and putting the moves on Miss Birdsong. Strangely enough, this always makes me think of those rolling ambient house numbers by The Orb like Perpetual Dawn and Toxygene, gently unfurling on an astral plane.
I first heard this in a Kirk Degiorgio mix and couldn't believe my ears. This came out when? How?? It's the secret ancestor to Carl Craig's gaussian-blurred ambient excursions like Neurotic Behavior and A Wonderful Life, and a glorious track in its own right.
Which brings us to this, which strangely had the opposite effect: I couldn't believe it had come out so recently. Breathtakingly cinematic and vast in scope, it sounds simultaneously ancient and futuristic, like a sleek alien structure that the scientists can't seem to date. I remember compiling the Parallax 100 and originally planning to include 4 Jazz Funk Classics, but just couldn't resist this record's exquisite shades and absorbing timbres. Elements is in that grey area of compilations that pull from just one or two years - see also The Three EPs by The Beta Band - but it just works too well as an album in its own right. It gets the pass! And just because his first stuff is my absolute favorite doesn't mean I don't love the rest of it... the man has gone from strength to strength, one of the most consistently compelling producers around.
Motorik deep space drive. I've been a big fan of Red Planet for ages, and if I'm not mistaken have everything the label put out (there might be a Somewhere In Detroit record lingering, I can't remember). At the time I just couldn't get ahold of the records, try as I might. I first heard this and Midnite Sunshine (and, come to think of it the very next track as well) on Submerge's Depth Charge 3, a round-up of tracks that from their extended crew. I was in heaven.
This is the other one from that compilation, although its original home was a label compilation for Matrix Records (Sean Deason's label). As far as I know, this never had a release outside those two compilations. Deason was a rising star at this time, in what was called The Third Wave Of Detroit Techno, and I snapped up whatever I could by him. When he was on, he was really on. This spaced out organ jam, a sleek Martian cousin to Paperclip People's Steam, was one of those moments.
I can now recall that there was a bit of a Detroit rally going on at this point. I was feeling good! This tune was actually featured on Saunderson's X-Mix that I mentioned above. It was hot off the presses at the time. Simply put, this is superb machine disco. Deeply psychedelic and absorbing, that bassline just takes hold. Are those synths or are they voices? You just have to close your eyes to this one.
More dazzling tronik house moves, this time by way of Chicago. Machine rhythms and a cascading bassline suck you into the pitch black, while blurred vocals invite you to take a ride. This is night drive music for a ride to Club Silencio.
This one from the awesome Dark Energy double-pack on UR. Credited to Dark Energy AKA Suburban Knight AKA James Pennington, and offering up a flipside to the paranoid dread in earlier records like The Art Of Stalking and Nocturbulous Behavior: anything is possible and the future is wide open. Inspiring stuff. There was a later Dark Energy record that was quite good as well, this time on an electrofunk tip.
Taken from A Collection Of Short Stories, which is (if I'm not mistaken) Global Communication's auspicious debut. The record is a grab-bag of disparate styles - from ambient to breakbeat techno and grinding industrial - complete with an equally disjunctured set of accompanying science fiction texts. This beauty in this track lies in its sheer inevitability as it works out its own internal logic - the synth's progression and that throbbing bassline, low-key breaks rolling beneath - its off-kilter funk running like illogical clockwork.
I've always been quite fond of this one. Its casual futurism is like viewing the Earth through a tiny portal from within the compact close quarters of the international space station... a tin can floating through the vastness of space. There's also loads of stuff by The Black Dog that I could/should have used in this list, but it must have slipped my mind.
This unlikely jewel of space music in miniature lies nestled at the end of China Crisis' debut album, Difficult Shapes & Passive Rhythms. It drops you into the shadow of a nebula and is over in the blink of an eye.
I think this one first appeared on the All Access To Detroit's Music Festivals compilation, but it later got a 12" release. A clockwork rhythm taps beneath a glowing bassline as the deepest of synths roll out into casual infinity. Strangely, this often makes me think of the spaciest precincts of China Crisis' discography (particularily Red Sails and The Soul Awakening).
These gentlemen from Cologne don't have an album dedicated to space, possibly because they already said everything they needed to within the shining six minutes of Spacelab. Partially inspired by the machine disco rhythms of Giorgio Moroder, this sounds like ambient house before house even happened.
When Dr. Zarkov's space capsule disconnects from the rocket, that guitar strum etches itself into infinity. Queen in soundtrack mode here, this is beautiful like Tangerine Dream. It's the love theme for Dale and Flash, one one level, but on another it seems to gesture toward a universal love for all of humanity (and thus makes it Dr. Zarkov's theme as much as anyone else's). Perfect music for getting sucked into a vortex, I once made an abstract hip hop track that sampled those opening synths.
Glorious early deep house from Larry Heard (a legend doncha know?). You've got this gently chugging beat, a bassline that wanders all over the spectrum and shimmering synth sequences that rotate in slow-motion lunar orbit, always threatening to slip just behind the beat but staying in perfect time. Exquisitely psychedelic.
Uptempo bizzness from the ever-reliable Dâm-Funk. Seeing him live made me realize that he's something like the West Coast equivalent to Moodymann: operating with the same vital foot in the present, informed by deep crates and a musical lineage stretching deep into the past (just swap out West Coast electro and Solar Records for deep disco slates and Motown). This is one of those moments when you realize that he's making, for all intents and purposes, techno.
Produced by Darryl Pearson, cohort of DeVante Swing (mentor to Timbaland), and the sound's rubbed off in this fragile orbital torch song. I remember Simon Reynolds, back in the day, describing how midway through the song everything seemed to rotate on its axis. There's loads of great r&b moments that happen to be built on Art Of Noise/ZTT tunes (a list in itself there), and this must surely be among the greatest.
SA-RA at their most deliriously decomposed (think Smokeless Highs and Hangin' By A String), but working with such lush source material that it manages to become a great pop moment in and of itself. Shamefully, I don't know anything about DJ Mitsu The Beats, as I only grabbed this remix EP after hearing it played out on their Dark Matter & Pornography Mixtape.
And the men themselves for the grand finale. I can't overstate how epochal this crew have been in my own musical life, like something on the level of Led Zeppelin. They managed to tie together so many strands of music that I cherish and then took them supernova. This is zero gravity r&b, and a perfect end to this unplanned excursion into deep space music.