Friday, December 19, 2014

Music For the Jilted Generation: The Rise of Electronica in the 90's

Prodigy circa 1997

I was born in the summer of love, May 1967, to parents barely out of their teens, so rock music has been the soundtrack to my entire life, but there was a time in the early/mid 90’s when I walked away from rock.  Ironically, this occurred exactly at the time when “my” side of the rock divide had “won”, i.e., when the grunge and alternative movements hastened the demise of the detestable trifle known as hair metal.  Anyone who has read any of my other posts knows that there are precious few genres of music, and of rock music in particular, that I DON’T like, but hair metal is indeed one of those genres.  One of the things I hated most about late 80’s hair metal was how unoriginal and homogeneous it was, especially compared to the new wave musical movement that immediately preceded it.  New wave was all about having your own unique look, sound, and band name, and extremely few new wave acts looked or sounded that similar.  Hair metal, in contrast, seemed to be all about imitating exactly the look and sound of the bands that had already made it.  So nearly every hair metal band had long, hairsprayed hair, spandex a la David Lee Roth, and/or leather and studs in the manner of Rob Halford of Judas Priest.  And every group put out a watered down version of the hard rock/blues of the New York Dolls augmented with as much Jimmy Page-style guitar pyrotechnics as they could cram in.  Moreover, every album had the same tiresome lyrics obsessed with “partying” and poontang, but of course they also always had that one ballad to show off their tender side.  Watching MTV during this time was a tedious parade of videos showcasing these pretty boys prancing around a giant stage while girls in ripped acid wash jeans screamed and/or gyrated, and there was a bewildering onslaught of groups—Poison, Ratt, Warrant, Winger, Whitesnake, White Lion, Firehouse, Bang Tango, Dangerous Toys, and on and on. 
            And then, in 1990, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and other “grunge” bands from the Pacific Northwest climbed out of the clubs and took the charts by storm.  Grunge combined the rawness of the early hardcore bands like Black Flag with the slower, heavier, longer sound of 70’s metal pioneers like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple.  Flag themselves were one of the first to lead this charge, starting with albums like Loose Nut and Slip It In, which showcased their increasing interest in pre-punk 70’s rock forebearers. 
            At the same time that grunge was capturing the ears of Middle American teens, “alternative” was also gathering interest.  Alternative music grew out of punk and new wave and what was also called “college music” or “independent” or “indie” music in the mid to late 80’s.  First-wave English new wave groups like Depeche Mode, the Cure, and the Smiths/Morrissey had been gathering popularity throughout the 80’s to the point where they were filling arenas by the end of the decade, while groups like Jane’s Addiction, Sonic Youth, and R.E.M. moved from small independent American labels to the majors.  All of a sudden, the music you used to only be able to hear on college radio and see in small smoky clubs and read about in zines like Flipside was everywhere.

            This is exactly when I started to become disenchanted with, even disinterested in, rock music.  By 1990 I’d been passionately involved in punk and new wave for almost a decade, and while I was overjoyed to see hair metal swept aside like the insignificant piffle that it was, I wasn’t super excited by what replaced it either, for several reasons.  First and foremost, even by the late 80’s I was becoming bored with loud, angry music; indeed, as I have gone on about in prior posts, by 1989 my favorite band in the world was the 70’s glitter rock-influenced band Celebrity Skin, who’s silly, feel-good music, outrageous costumery and zany stage antics made them incredibly entertaining live, unlike most super-serious grunge and alternative acts.  But Celebrity Skin broke up in early 1991 (a few days after the death of Freddie Mercury, appropriately enough) and that was a major blow to my desire to see new bands or hear new music.  My then-girlfriend/now-wife and I had spent much of the previous three years religiously following the Skinners and their stablemates on Triple X Records such as the Ultras, Pygmy Love Circus, the Miracle Workers, and Liquid Jesus, through LA’s circuit of small clubs, but with Skin broken up, this lost much of its meaning for both of us.  The only other band that came even remotely close to capturing the entertainingly flamboyant nature of Celebrity Skin was Jane’s Addiction, but by the early 90’s they were awash in drug abuse and similarly self-indulgent rock star occupations.  We saw Jane’s A one last time, at the Universal Amphitheater, in 1992, and went away disillusioned with how far they’d fallen from their exciting, revolutionary beginnings.  We were in our mid-20’s then but felt more like 100 next to all the teeny boppers with their dreadlocks and nose rings in perfect imitation of their hero Perry.
            Another problem I had with grunge music was how macho it was.  Much of it was loud, heavy, slow, and the bands who created it seemed to revel in the post-hardcore machismo of the mosh pit.  Unlike Celebrity Skin’s concerts, which were filled with gorgeous, tall, skinny punky model types in vintage 70’s Halston minidresses and platform shoes, you rarely saw women at most grunge shows, which seemed filled instead mostly with the same manly meatheads who a couple years before were holding their lighters aloft during Whitesnake’s encore.  I wasn’t then, nor am I now, much of a fan of anything particularly testosterone-laden, so that too turned me off in a big way from grunge.
            And while part of me was happy to see bands I’d formerly liked such as Sonic Youth, the Meat Puppets, and Camper Van Beethoven sign on to major labels and release records, none of these albums ever captured my interest the way their earlier work did.  Sonic Youth is a particularly good example; quite honestly, I haven’t particularly liked anything they’ve done since Evol.  I didn’t even like Daydream Nation!!!!
            As the early 90’s unfolded I became less and less interested in where traditional rock music was going.  In part for the reasons above, and in part because in 1995 my girlfriend finished her Ph.D. in Los Angeles and moved to Columbus Ohio to do postdoctoral research, I was going out to see bands only rarely.  Also, I was focused on trying to finish up my own Ph.D. and move to Ann Arbor where I had a postdoc set up and which was as close as I could get to Columbus.  That year I worked incessantly, seven days a week and was often out of town running additional experiments up at the NASA-Ames Research Center at Moffett Field.  On the rare occasions that I was in town and not working, I would usually just go to Harvelle’s, the legendary blues club in Santa Monica, or I would go out with my buddy and then-roommate Gil to clubs like Young Moguls and watch old flicks and drink beer. 

            My final year in Los Angeles, 1996, I bought on a whim an album that set me at least temporarily onto a slightly different path.  The album was 1991’s Lust by the Lords of Acid.  I’d been sort of keeping an eye on electronic music for a while; I’d been a huge fan of first-run synth bands like Depeche Mode and early Pet Shop Boys since 1983, but had lost interest in that music in the mid-80’s as I’d gotten more interested in hardcore punk and hard rock like AC/DC.  I knew vaguely that some bands, particularly in Europe, were producing an entire culture centered around electronic dance music, but had never seen any of these bands live nor had I really heard much of that music.  I bought the Lords of Acid album mostly because I thought their name sounded cool; I wasn’t then and am not now much of a druggie but I had to admire a band that came right out and glorified hallucinogen use right in their name! 
            Listening to this album now is almost embarrassing; while Lords of Acid would evolve into a band of loud, brutal energy, this album sounds really cheesy and dated.  The synths sound really simplistic, like cheap Casios and the beats are pretty simplistic.  And almost every song is about sex—“Rough Sex”, “I Sit On Acid”, “Pump My Body To The Top”, “I Must Increase My Bust”, etc.    Their later work developed more of a rock edge, and songs like “Drink My Honey”, “Mister Machoman”, “Do What You Wanna Do”, the incomparable “The Crab Louse” and the title track off 1994’s Voodoo-U, and “Slave To Love”, “Rover Take Over”, “Loverboy Lovergirl”, and “I Like It” off 1997’s Farstucker had a much harder edge, almost approaching the violent industrial metal of bands like White Zombie.
            But at the time listening to this album was a revelation.  This was a whole new genre of music that I hadn’t ever explored, and as always this was very tempting to me.  I was particularly fascinated by the loud, grinding, chiming synths of songs like “Rough Sex”, which very much reminded me of the rawness and stridency of punk. 

            In June of 1996 I moved to Ann Arbor to start a postdoctoral research position studying gene therapy in the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Michigan Medical School.  At the time I was obsessed with learning some of the techniques of the still-somewhat-new field of molecular biology.  Splicing genes, growing cells in a dish, and creating and studying genetically engineered animals were my focus, and because these all seemed so futuristic, I was extremely obsessed with anything that seemed forward looking.  It was around this time that I discovered Wired magazine, with its focus on emerging technology and how it would change our lives, and became a devoted reader (I still enjoy it today).  I also started reading speculative fiction books and short stories that centered on plausible science fiction.
            So it seemed only natural to also seek out music that wasn’t a throwback like most rock was but that was also similarly forward focused.  I still remember that for Christmas 1996 my then-girlfriend and I went skiing with her family in Lake Tahoe, and on the drive up to Incline Village from Long Beach I listened incessantly to a new electronica compilation CD I’d bought just before leaving Ann Arbor called Wipeout XL.  Even more than Lust, this CD really sucked me into the burgeoning electronica movement.  Wipeout XL was the soundtrack to a video game, which in itself was a pretty novel concept at the time.  It contained some of the best electronica tracks of the mid-90’s, including “We Have Explosive” by another group with a terrific name, The Future Sound of London.  With it’s heavy, syncopated breakbeat, robotic vocals, dub echo, guitar-like blasts, and especially the atonal electronic noise that anchors the entire song, it was so incredibly different from most rock music.  And yet, it also wasn’t.  Mostly what it seemed like to me was a deconstruction of a typical rock song, a taking apart of the basic elements of rock music—guitar licks, beats, bursts of lyrics—and reconstructing them into something altogether different.  The second song, “Atom Bomb”, by Fluke, had a similarly atonal, deconstructed manner as well that I also loved.  My favorite, however, was the instrumental version of “Firestarter” by the Prodigy, with its squalling electronic feedback sample overlying what in essence was a traditional rock song, albeit with a much heavier beat.  These bands seemed to be trying to cross the divide between hard/pure electronic music on the one hand, and traditional rock music on the other, and while I also liked other, more traditional electronic songs on this album (like “Petrol” by Orbital and “Afro Ride” by Leftfield), I was most attracted to these heavier, more rock-influenced electronica acts.
            My love of the song by Prodigy led me to explore this band’s output.  I quickly learned that this band had a rich history of work, mostly singles, stretching back to the start of the 90’s.  Their earlier stuff was much more straightforward electronic dance music at the heart of English rave culture—repetitive, long, and very very electronic.  But starting in 1995 their music expanded beyond these simple beginnings and became much more compelling, at least to me.  1995’s Music For the Jilted Generation was a tremendous step forward, while at the same time it was still anchored in the long drugged out songs of their past, like the eight-plus minute “Break & Enter” and “The Heat (The Energy)”.  But songs like the galloping, grinding “Voodoo People” and the squawking “Their Law”, with its heavy breakbeat, were pointing toward a new synthesis of rock and electronic music.
            But it was a single from this album that really blew me away.  At some point early in 1997 I bought a CD single of “Poison”, and this really floored me.  This is still to this day one of the funkiest, most danceable songs I have ever heard; when Liam Hewlett drops in the hyperfuzzed bass line and super heavy breakbeat, after the pulsing droning throb of the intro, it sounds like hip hop from the distant future.  The multiple vocal samples and the coursing, competing synth blasts give this song a wild, textured feel.  This remains to this day one of my favorite songs, electronic or otherwise, of all time. 
            Prodigy of course would go on to significant fame and success, although they never made it as big as people predicted because of the inevitable backlash against electronica that started in the early 2000’s.  But their album Fat of the Land was a total triumph in my opinion.  From the opening panzer-like bass rumble and breakbeat blast of “Smack My Bitch Up” onward, this was music that grabbed you by the throat and never let go.  The ominous, almost creepy “Breathe” is another standout, as is the lurching hip hop of “Diesel Power”.  “Funky Shit” harkens back to their rave beginnings, pulsing and oscillating in pure dance mode.  “Serial Thrilla” merges metal guitar with big beats and Keith Flint’s punky, snotty vocals, while “Mindfields” is another eerie, slowly building electronic masterpiece.  “Narayan” has a freaky, Indian/psychedelic feel, especially the break, with it’s ominously chanted vocals, and it eventually swirls into their smash hit “Firestarter”.  Start to stop this is one of the very best, most complete albums of the 90’s of any genre, with no real weaknesses anywhere. 

            After this I sought out as many electronica albums as I could find.  One of my next purchases, because I’d by now read so much about it, was the Chemical Brothers’ 1994 release Exit Planet Dust.  From the funky, soulful beginning of the very first song, “Leave Home”, this album had me hooked.  And indeed, one of the things I enjoyed about electronica then and still respect now is how album-oriented it was.  This was clearly intended by the Chemical Bros to be played as one long groove; you could put this on and just leave it on for the entire party, and each song melds into the next without ever letting the energy sag.  I also loved the super scratching on “In Dust We Trust”; these guys had clearly been listening to a LOT of American rap music from the 80’s and were doing their part to push the art of turntabling to the next level.  But it was the next two songs, “Song to the Siren” and “Three Little Birdies Down Beats”, that just blew me away.  “Siren”, with its Indian-sounding samples layered over a dense mat of beats, samples, and sounds was, and is, an amazingly complex and fascinating song.  But by far my favorite song was “Birdies”, with its staccato beat that emerges from “Song to the Siren” along with a blasting, airhorn-like synth line, which merges with two other wild, flailing synth lines, that builds this song up from a simple beginning into something that is raucous and strident, and yet somehow still danceable at the same time.  Again, I was struck by how they could take sound effects that individually were strident and unpleasant and by layering them together over infectious beats could create music that was totally enjoyable and, as mentioned, still super danceable.  This too is one of my favorite songs to this day.
            But in addition to their wildly rocking side, the Chemical Brothers also had their mellow side.  Much of the rest of Planet Dust demonstrates this. “Chico’s Groove” is spacy, sounding like something off the soundtrack for a “2001:  A Space Odyssey” type science fiction movie.  “One Too Many Mornings” pulsates and soars, while “Life Is Sweet” explores hippie psychedelia.  “Playground of a Wedgeless Form” has a buzzy throb and strange guitar-plucking samples/sounds placed over a big, heavy beat.   But it was their collaboration with folk singer Beth Orton that ends the album, “Alive Alone”, that also garnered some favorable attention.  Orton’s clear, sweet voice fit strangely well over the Brothers’ pulsing, funky maelstrom of sound.  This too is a terrific song that has aged incredibly well.
            I have enjoyed every Chemical Brothers album since this, but to me this was always their very best work.  In particular, I like “Block Rockin’ Beats”, the incomparably funky “Piku”, and Beth Orton’s dreamy “Where Do I Begin” off Dig Your Own Hole;  the trippy “Sunshine Underground”, the funky “Orange Wedge”, and the swirling “Asleep from Day” off Surrender; “The State We’re In” from Come with Us, and “Come With Us” from Chemical Four.

            Another compilation album I purchased around this time (mid 1997) was Deconstruction Presents.  This is a hybrid collection of some of the best DJ/electronica music created in the 90’s.  Much of this CD consists of house music, the less rock-y, more purely dance style of music that had taken clubs by storm in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and while that isn’t my favorite type of electronic music, there are some phenomenal tracks in this vein, including the sweet, trippy “The Gift” by Way Out West and Miss Joanna Law, and Sasha & Maria’s breathy “Be As
one”, “Anthem” by N-Joi, which samples lyrics from Gwen Guthrie’s song “Peanut Butter” and “I Found Love” by Darlene Davis.  The best house songs here in my opinion though are the two De’Lacy songs, the mid-tempo herky-jerky“Hideaway” and the smooth as butter “That Look”, both of which feature the incomparable Rainie Lassiter on vocals.  “Everybody Everybody” by Black Box has the pounding piano and smooth vocals of classic disco, while “I’m Rushin’” is a little funkier but has the same diva vocals. 
            But to me one of the strangest and most interesting dance songs of all time is “Swamp Thing” by The Grid.  A strange amalgam of southern banjo, blasts of synth, and driving beats, this is unlike anything I’ve ever heard since.  Few bands have attempted a modern take on square dance music, but this is as close as it comes to that.  Fantastic.
            Another song that really grabbed my attention on this album was the leadoff track, “Landslide” by Harmonix.  No, this isn’t a remake of the Stevie Nicks classic, it is essentially a raved-up remix of “Where the Streets Have No Name” by U2, and it is one of the most beautiful, optimistic, joyful songs ever recorded. 
            In terms of more breakbeat oriented electronica, this album contains the utterly fantastic “Dirt” by Death In Vegas. Very much cut from the same cloth as the Chemical Brothers’ Exit Planet Dust songs, this one consists of a mashup of huge heavy beats, surging synth lines, heavy throbbing bass lines, and strange vocal samples.  A couple years or two later I also acquired a few songs from their album Scorpio Rising, including “23 Lies”, the guitar-based “Leather”, and “Scorpic Rising”, which features Liam Gallagher of Oasis on vocals.  But my favorite Death in Vegas song, and a song I still love to hear on my workout playlist, is “Song For Penny” off the Lost in Space Soundtrack.   I love the rising and falling alarm-like sample that begins it, and the roaring, feeding back guitars layered over the dense, galloping drums.  This is pure punk rock, again taken apart and then re-constructed as a danceable but still loud and raw song.  I absolutely love this song.

Another album I bought around this time was one that has fallen off most people’s radar, Endorfun by LCD.  This is not the same band as LCD Soundsystem, but rather is two Swedish guys trying to create their country’s answer to the Chemical Brothers.  While not quite as rock influenced as the Chemical Bros, this album nevertheless flows along on a single continuous groove too and has many standout tracks, including the incredibly funky title track (which is very reminiscent of “Leave Home” by the Chemical Brothers); the slower but still funky “Elektronik”; “Gear Boxing”, which reminds me of “Song To the Siren”; “Cry Baby”; and the more purely electronic “Bank Robber”, “Suprime Weirdness”, and “Think Smart”.  This is a terrific album top to bottom and deserves to be recognized more for its quality.

            In addition to the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers, two other bands rose out of the electronica movement of the mid/late 90’s to achieve a measure of success.  One of these was the Crystal Method from Las Vegas, one of the few American bands to break into this genre dominated by European acts.  Their 1997 album Vegas was a smash hit that yielded several hit singles, though the band also experienced a backlash when some of these songs were sold for commercial purposes and resulted in immediate over-exposure.  In particular, the song “Busy Child” was crafted from the exact same blueprint as the Chemical Brother’s “Three Little Birdies Down Beats”:  simple vocal samples and huge, heavy, driving breakbeat, over which strange buzzing, squawking, strident synth signatures were layered progressively to create a sound that by the end of the song is densely layered and almost harsh but still extremely danceable.  This song is another of my all-time favorites from this era and genre, though it did get a little over-exposed as it was used for a Gap ad later that year.
            Vegas is filled with excellent tracks like this, such as the leadoff song “Trip Like I Do”, built around the sampled vocals of a stoned young woman imploring someone that “I want you to trip like I do”; its surging intro, with a spoken word overdub and dense, atmospheric underpinning, ultimately blasts into a frenetic attack of beats and synth bass.  The pulsing, syncopated “Cherry Twist” and the spacy, guitar-riff centered “High Roller” are two other high points.  “Keep Hope Alive” is another standout; I purchased a maxi-CD-single of this that has some even better, trippier versions of this song, like the slower, dub-heavy Trip Hope mix and the Latin-tinged Dubeliscious Groove (Fly Spanish Version).  This is another album that really has no major weak spots; every song is pretty incredible.
            2001’s Tweekend was nearly as solid.  Starting with the huge, funky “PHD”, and continuing through the nearly-as-funky “Wild, Sweet, and Cool”, this album gets you up and dancing in a hurry.  “Roll It Up” and the melodic “Murder” are much like the songs on Vegas.  My favorite song on this album, though, is “Name of the Game”, with its fantastic vocal intro (“Attention all you motherfuckers!”) and pulsing bass and huge guitar riffs.
            I wasn’t as big a fan of 2004’s Legion of Boom; in some ways I saw it as a step backward.  Things didn’t pop and sizzle like they did on either of their first two albums and there wasn’t a standout track or two like there was on those two albums either.  “Starting Over” is decent, and I like the hip hop flavor of “The American Way”, and the trance-y “I Know It’s You” as well as the funky metal of “Weapons of Mass Distortion”, but otherwise am not a huge fan.

            The fourth huge band to come out of the 90’s electronica movement is of course Daft Punk, who last year won a Grammy for their work with Pharrell on their album Random Access Memories.  I haven’t really gotten into this album much because I’m still obsessed with their debut album, 1997’s Homework, which I consider to be one of the greatest albums ever.  An amazing amalgam of disco, house, hip hop, and big beat electronica, this is yet another electronica album you can just throw onto the CD player and leave playing till the end.  The distorted voice that begins “Daftendirekt”, that eventually resolves into the words “Da funk back to the punk c'mon”, gives a little indication of where this music is going to take you.  “Revolution 909” starts with party crowd noise, sirens, and traffic sounds over an insistent disco beat sample and just percolates suggestively for over five minutes but is one of the most danceable songs on earth.  This is disco stripped of everything else:  divas, even vocals, and all other instruments, but it shows just how potent that disco beat is.  “Da Funk” was a major hit single, and Spike Jonze even made a legendarily strange video for it featuring a man with a giant dog’s head walking around a New York neighborhood blasting the song from his ghetto blaster while he runs errands and meets friends.   This song too is insanely danceable, especially when the Punks drop the big beat around the 40 second mark.  This is a HUGE, bass heavy beat that throbs in your chest when you play it at even modest volume, the very distilled essence of funk.  A yowling synth line kicks in soon after, but the part of the song that really takes off is after the break, where a squeaky, scratching synth line kicks in and the beat drops back in.   This part of the song is just insanely fun to dance to; I once requested this in one of Ann Arbor’s surprisingly good dance clubs and the place went WILD.  My friend Gil once said this about Jane’s Addiction’s “Whores” but I think it applies here too:  “This makes me want to bang my head AND shake my ass at the same time!”
            “Phoenix” is another deconstructed disco song.  Starting with just a polyrhythmic beat, it eventually adds a chiming sample and scratching synth line and a meandering bass line.  Again it is amazing to me how simple but effective this music is, and how much you can take away from a typical disco song and still be left with something magical and danceable.
            “Phoenix” melds right into the next disco-house jam, “Fresh”.  To me another incredible aspect of this album is how Daft Punk build their songs across the length of the album.  “Revolution 909” is the simplest, “Phoenix” has a little more to it, and “Fresh” more still.  This song too follows a common pattern of several other songs on this album, starting from a single sonic element, progressively adding more elements to it, but then resolving back to simplicity.
            “Around the World” starts with a muted beat and, like “Fresh”, builds this initial sample up, eventually adding robotic “Around the World” vocals repeating before fading out.
            Another high point of the album for me is “Rollin’ and Scratchin’”, which begins with an insistent, almost irritating beat, and adds a progressively more atonal, screeching synth element and buzzing bass to it until the entire song is a cacophony of wildly frantic noise.   I also love how this song reaches a crescendo, drops back somewhat, but then comes back just as forcefully as ever before resolving back to the simple beat.  I once put Homework on at a friend’s party in Ann Arbor and by the midpoint of this song my beloved CD was forcefully ejected and I was banned evermore from touching the CD player!  This song is still hard to take for anyone not raised on strident, atonal music like I was. 
            “Teachers” is a funky run through a list of some of Daft Punk’s influences, including DJ Funk, Dr. Dre, George Clinton, Gemini, and Li’l Louis among many others, while “High Fidelity” has to be the only song in history to sample “Just the Way You Are” by Billy Joel, and only goes to show that these guys can make ANYTHING danceable. “Rock ‘n Roll” is another progressively building noise blast in the same vein as “Rollin’ and Scratchin’”, while “Oh Yeah” sounds like robot hip hop.  “Burnin’” and “Indo Silver Club” are solid but not especially memorable, but Daft Punk end on a strong note with “Alive”, a sussurating five minute dance groove that makes you just want to hit “start” all over again.

1997 seemed to be the year that electronica peaked, and after that it didn't really seem like there was much innovation.  But I definitely have liked some electronic music (which now is usually called electronic dance music or EDM) since then.  In the same vein as Daft Punk are Finland’s Ural 13 Diktators.  Songs like “Tonight”, “Techno Game”, and “Dream World” from their Disco Kings EP from 2001 are the same melding of beats, disco, and house that flavored Daft Punk’s Homework, as are “Still Alive”, “Victorious Night”, and the title song from 2003’s Raid Over Europe.    But my favorite song by them is the almost-terrifying “Laser Karaoke”, with its HUGE bass-beat throb and loud, ominous foreign shouting “LASER KARAOKE” vocals.  This song is another one that sends subliminal signals to your legs and ass to MOVE.
            Another weird European electronic band is Junkie XL aka Holland’s Tom Holkenborg, who split the difference between electronic dance music like the Chemical Brothers and digital hardcore in the vein of Alec Empire and Atari Teenage Riot.  A great example is “Underachievers”, from 1997’s Saturday Teenage Kick, which starts with a record skip and a few weird sound effects before dropping a beat and adding a few squealing and buzzing synth lines, but then busts into a full-blown punk-metal guitar blast and breakbeat before moving into Holkenborg’s rapid-fire rapping.  This is a great song combining all of the best aspects of modern music—dance, rap, metal/punk.  I especially like the scratching solo in the middle.  “Junkie Expanding Limits” evokes the Beastie Boys off Check Your Head, with its dense samples, heavy beats, and scratching, and of course because of the rapid-fire rapping. “Saturday Teenage Kick” is magnificent because it samples the guitar line from “Divide and Conquer” by Husker Du off Flip Your Wig, and crafts a really rocking but melodic song from it to boot.  One thing I’ve always loved in rap music is when it samples classic rock songs; Run DMC pretty obviously did this first with Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” (which technically isn’t a sample and is more of a remake), and the Beastie Boys plundered everyone from Zep to AC/DC to Deep Purple, and my favorite example of this is “She Watch Channel Zero?!” by Public Enemy, which famously samples “Angel of Death” by Slayer.    “Melange” is reminiscent to the buzzing, blasting breakbeat of Crystal Method.
Holkenborg followed up with 1999’s Big Sounds of the Drags, and the standout track here is “Action Radius”, with its swirling beginning that resolves into yet another gigantic blast of guitar riffage before dropping into a massive beat.  Holkenborg’s rapping is almost hectoring here, but the chorus is kind of big and sing-song-y.  “Check Your Basic Groove” and “Love Like Razorblade” are cut from the same cloth as Crystal Method’s “Keep Hope Alive”, while “Synasthesia” races along like “Fresh” by Daft Punk.  “Zerotonine” has a sweet strings sample and a milder rapping cadence, and “Legion” has a mellower acoustic vibe that sounds to me like some of the stuff Everlast did after he left House of Pain.

Another electronic band I like are Denmark’s Junior Senior.  The Michael Jackson sampling “Move Your Feet” is another gorgeous disco/electronic/dance mashup, as is “Go Junior, Go Senior”, both off 2001’s D-D-Don’t Don’t Stop the Beat.

England’s Fluke seemed for a time like they might join the “Big Four” of the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, Crystal Method, and Daft Punk, and indeed their 1997 album Risotto is nearly as good as albums by these groups.  In addition to the aforementioned Wipeout XL track “Atom Bomb”, this album also has the hyper-rhythmic “Absurd”, the swirling, romantic “Kitten Moon”, the pulsing, percolating “Mosh”, and the surging “Squirt”, as well as the ominous seven minute album ender “Goodnight Lover”.  However, other songs, like “Amp”, “Reeferendum”, “Bermuda”, and “Setback” never really move beyond enjoyable and often verge on repetitious. 

Two other English acts, Fatboy Slim and Basement Jaxx, also had hit songs during this period, Fatboy Slim with the fantastic bombast of “Right Here, Right Now” and the Jaxx with “Where’s Your Head At”.  I also like “Killafornia” by Fatboy Slim and the disco smoothness of “Romeo” and “Just 1 Kiss” by the latter.

With respect to contemporary electronic dance music, one DJ I especially enjoy is David Guetta.  A couple years ago they ended the Grammies featuring performances by Guetta and Deadmau5, and I thought Guetta, Li’l Wayne and Chris Brown’s version of “I Can Only Imagine” blew poor little mousie out of the water.  This song is just fun and upbeat, and for a while was my son’s favorite song (when he was six or seven); I just love how the sweet piano pounding builds the chorus until it blows apart into a pulsing fuzz bass and frantic synth. 
I’ve also tried to explore other prominent current DJs and EDM musicians.  I have developed a fondness for Skrillex, especially the songs “Bangarang” (this is my personal fave for obvious reasons, with its wild screeching synth), “Kyoto”, “Rock n’ Roll (Will Take You To the Mountain) (another favorite of mine), “Kill Everybody”, and “All I ask Of You”.  I also like Nicky Romero’s “Toulouse”, another great strident squacking synth line set over a danceable groove.  Afrojack is another favorite particularly the percolating “Prutataaa” and “Funk With Me”, and the house-influenced “As Your Friend”, which feature Chris Brown on vocals.

Eventually I grew away from solely listening to electronica.  In fact, one of the things that prompted me to move back into rock was the rise of Napster; it allowed me to sample, for free, many songs, artists, and genres that I hadn’t before, plus it allowed me to acquire a ton of old songs I used to like.  Slowly I moved away from electronica, but I never completely lost my love for the songs mentioned here.  I still think electronica invigorated contemporary music in a major way, and helped to mix together genres like hip hop, disco, and rock that hadn’t always been mixed together well in the past. 

I recently re-explored my old electronica songs.  Last winter we had a number of storms and cold snaps here in Colorado, and were forced to spend a lot of time indoors.  My then seven-year-old son and I, along with my wife, would put on a playlist of electronica songs and dance to them to alleviate the boredom and give us some physical activity.  My son developed a fondness for electronica that has continued to this day, though currently his top favorite artist is Eminem.  But his second favorite artist is the Prodigy, especially “Breathe” and most other songs on Fat of the Land.  In fact, he insisted that I make him a Prodigy t-shirt, which I did.  We also watched a performance by the Prodigy from a European mega-concert from a few years ago that was really enjoyable.  It has been fun to re-explore this music with my son and I’m glad he appreciates it as much as I do.