Most electronic music aficionados think of the 1990s as “the dark ages” after the explosion of electro bands in the 80s. Post acid house, good electronic pop music saw a huge decline in the face of grunge, Britpop and the like. But there were some superb releases in this decade. The 1990s saw the electrofication of goth and industrial music to create electro-industrial, a genre I consumed with rabid passion and still love to this day. The rise of the sampler reinvented how to make a song. Trip-hop fused multiple genres into a hip new sound. Big Beat brought the cult of DJ and PlayStation game Wip3out brought the soundtrack album of the decade.
The 1990s were a crazy decade for me: I had the best of times and I had the worst of times. Maybe this is reflected in my selection below, where you’ll find some choices that aren’t even very electronic. Or maybe good music always transcends the circumstance you’re in when you hear it. Either way, here are my ten favorite albums of the 1990s!
Deee-lite – World Clique (1990)
Clutching my newly-earned degree in Electronic Engineering, in 1990 I started a job as a graduate technical writer with a small firm in central Scotland. With student debt I couldn’t really afford anywhere decent to stay, so I ended up renting a room in the house of a mad christian woman. The house was always packed with people, as she’d invite random stray homeless to sleep in the living room and worked at converting them to her religion. She kept the heating on permanently and thought it was her duty to harass her neighbor into selling the house next door to her (She owned 3 of the 4 houses in the block and was determined to own the fourth one. Luckily god was on her side: one morning she burst into my room to ecstatically tell me how Jesus had come to her that night and offered to go next door and smash the neighbor’s water pipes). Another time she broke into my room when I was out and smashed up my wall clock. It was one of those backwards clocks which I thought was pretty cool but she said it was “the work of Satan” and had to go. So to escape all that madness I’d go for long walks each night, accompanied by my Sony Discman and two albums in particular: Front Line Assembly’s Caustic Grip and Deee-lite’s wonderful World Clique.
World Clique is a superbly made record and I loved every single track on it. Lady Miss Kier was my savior in those dark days, shining her bubblegum light in the gloom and always bringing a smile to my face. Listening with headphones this album really comes into its own: DJs Dimitri and Towa Tei were true sampling pioneers and genius producers and mixers. There’s so much going on in every song that the rewards for repeat listens are bountiful. I think I listened to World Clique every day for months as I went on my long cold walks in the night.
After one weekend away I returned to the crazy christian home to find that the landlady had moved all my stuff to another house while I was away. Half my books and CDs had gone missing, and I’m pretty sure I saw one of the homeless guys wearing a pair of my jeans. I moved out of there soon after.
Depeche Mode – Violator (1990)
Depeche Mode’s best and best-selling album is the masterful Violator. Everything about it oozes sweet perfection: the song-writing, the lyrics, Flood’s production, François Kevorkian’s mixing, the album art and packaging. The heretic in me will also say that the 2006 DTS 5.1 surround mix is the best way to hear Violator. But however you listen, this album is at the pinnacle of electronic pop music. On its release Rolling Stone unbelievably gave Violator a paltry two-out-of-five and made themselves a laughing stock. Never trust a hippy.
The Beautiful South – 0898 Beautiful South (1992)
I’d been dating the same girl from school for years, but by 1992 things were pretty much over. We’d both moved on to new places and intellectually we’d moved on to different planets. “Our band” had been The Beautiful South, who I’d liked since their Housemartins incarnation. Along with Frazier Chorus, The Beautiful South were my favorite lyricists and I’m still waiting for a band to equal them on that regard (The Divine Comedy – see below – come closest). I loved how a Beautiful South song would seem to be one thing but listening to the words revealed it to be something else entirely. Their songs were sharp and witty and often funny but The Beautiful South were never a comedy band: their music was often deceptively poignant. I don’t really “do” love songs but I think The Beautiful South wrote some of the best love-influenced songs ever. 0898 Beautiful South is my favorite album of theirs. It never fails to make me smile and cry and feel uplifted, amused and melancholy all at the same time. 0898 Beautiful South is full of clever, funny, bittersweet lines and packed with memorable pop songs from start to finish. Probably my favorite is I’m Your No.1 Fan, an endearing love song and homage but with darker undertones. Heaton and Corrigan take turns to describe their warts ‘n’ all background before an obsessive (but honest) declaration of love and devotion.
I split up with that girl not long after this album came out. I panicked and shamelessly pleaded with her to take me back. Citing a Beautiful South song, she told me she needed “a little time” to think it over. Luckily she found a little courage and did the right thing. I never saw her again.
Snap! – Welcome To Tomorrow (1995)
I moved to France in 1994 for a job with Californian computer company Sun Microsystems. Suddenly I was in the heart of Europe with good food, good weather, and a truly pan-European environment thanks to the mixed nationalities in the university town of Grenoble. My musical tastes also expanded greatly, but at heart I was still primarily a fan of electronic pop music. German band Snap! had been around for a few years. I’d kinda liked The Power and loved Rhythm Is a Dancer and Exterminate (even though it had nothing to do with daleks). But I never really got much further than their singles until the release of Welcome To Tomorrow. Finally this was a Snap! album with consistency, helped along by a eurobeat and a strong sense of optimism. Futurism features heavily on this album, from the album cover through to the themes of songs like Dream On The Moon and my favorite track The First The Last Eternity.
Leftfield – Leftism (1995)
Thoughts of home and exaggerated patriotism were common among us British ex-pats in France. So when I heard about an Edinburgh-based film called Shallow Grave. I rushed to see it at one of the local art cinemas that showed films in “version originale.” This cool film also had an excellent soundtrack, and I especially liked the title track by Leftfield. The subsequent album – Leftism – remains one of my all-time favorite albums of any era. Mixing The Grid and William Orbit-style electronica with tribal dub and techno, I instantly thought of William Gibson’s cyberspace novel Neuromancer (if you know the book just listen to Afro Left or Inspection Check One and you’ll hear what I mean). This album could easily be the soundtrack to Neuromancer, and I think it’s no coincidence that it came out just at the birth of the World Wide Web. I created my first ever webpage while listening to this album, and still find it the perfect album when writing any kind of code.
Björk – Post (1995)
When I first heard Björk’s Post album it seemed to speak to me personally like no other. I was alone and isolated in a foreign country, far from my friends and family and suffering a severe bout of insecurity. Post helped me through those rough months, gave me hope and fuzzy warmth like only the best music can. Stylistically Post is all over the place (which also seemed to match my mood at the time) with trip hop perhaps being the most predominant. But Post has not dated one bit: it remains a brilliant emotionally-charged record from start to finish, and I still regard it as Björk’s finest work to date. Six singles were released from this album and I bought them all. None of the deluge of remixes matched the perfection of the album versions, with perhaps the exception of Skunk Anansie’s mix of Army Of Me.
The Divine Comedy – Casanova (1996)
I’d completely missed The Divine Comedy until I heard Something for the Weekend on a free CD that came with a magazine. I was soon a huge fan of everything Neil Hannon (well, except for Fanfare for the Comic Muse) and saw him in Lyon promoting his fourth album: Casanova. Casanova’s witty lyrics and Joby Talbot’s chamber-pop instrumentation, along with Neil Hannon’s Scott Walker-esque voice made this my most-played album that summer of ‘96. My life in France had taken a turn for the hedonistic: I was dating a few too many women and drinking a few too many bottles of wine than was probably good for me. I was young and single and those French girls always did seem to go for my big blue eyes so I was taking full advantage while I could. The Divine Comedy’s Casanova was the perfect album for me then, with its uniquely self-centered songs of “love” and sex and tales of frog princesses and women of the world.
Prodigy – The Fat Of The Land (1997)
I got a job back in Scotland and returned to the UK at the end of 1996. By far the biggest band back home was The Prodigy, who I’d liked ever since the Out of Space single back in ‘92. The Fat of the Land came out in the summer of 1997 and was the number one album across pretty much the entire planet. I had felt part of a jilted generation: the electronic music future promised from the previous decade had been all but killed off by the rise of grunge and Britpop and other guitar-based music for the masses. But here was a massively successful electronic dance record that smashed up all those guitars and succeeded on a scale that surpassed The Chemical Brothers, Orbital and Underworld combined. Putting aside the controversial videos, Keith Flint’s nu-punk antics and festival headline status, this record was everything the hype had promised. Liam Howlett was a sampling genius and had his finger not so much on the pulse as gouging out the veins. The Fat Of The Land drips with energy and is laced with some seriously funky shit. The three singles Firestarter, Breathe and Smack My Bitch Up gloriously terrorized the charts in a way that’s never happened since: punk is dead but it sure put up a hell of a fight on the way down.
My Life Story – The Golden Mile (1997)
The Divine Comedy had whet my appetite for chamber pop – that fusion of Britpop with real classical orchestras – and there’s no finer example than My Life Story. I’d first heard them in France, but back in Blighty I was able to see them live several times before their major label album The Golden Mile was finally released. By that time I already knew and loved pretty much every song on the album, so if anything it was a sort of Greatest Hits album for me. Back in ‘97 I didn’t really have any music biz connections or anything like that, but I did manage to get myself backstage to meet the band a few times. Mostly I just wanted to try to chat up MLS violinist Lucy Wilkins (with whom I’d developed a rather unhealthy infatuation) but I was also in awe of Jake Shillingford’s seemingly endless supply of fantastic songs. Many wonderful songs didn’t even make it onto the album (such as Stuck Up Your Own Era and live favorite Silently Screaming) but the songs that did make it are all first class (well, except for The King Of Kissingdom which never quite did it for me). The Golden Mile was undeservedly and shamefully panned by critics when it came out but I think this album has supremely stood the test of time. Take a listen to the magnificent You Can’t Uneat The Apple for example and tell me that’s not timeless.
Billy Mackenzie – Beyond The Sun (1997)
One night on one long cold Scottish winter in 1997, my favorite singer Billy Mackenzie committed suicide in a shed just over the water from me. I was devastated when I found out, it took me ages to get over. And I’d never even met the guy. That’s the power music has over me I guess. Billy Mackenzie was often thought of as having “the voice of an angel” and now I expect some would say that’s truer than ever. From a fanboy point of view there was one good thing to come out of this tragedy: it saw – finally – the release of all the Associates and Billy Mackenzie solo back catalog on CD, as well as formerly unreleased sessions he’d done with Steve Aungle, Paul Haig and former Associate Alan Rankine. It also triggered the creation and release of Beyond The Sun, an album made from demos Billy had recorded leading up to his death. Simon Raymonde of The Cocteau Twins produced and I think he was the perfect choice: his skilled touch meant that the end result is, for me, Billy Mackenzie’s best album. Perhaps the circumstance of the release added extra resonance (especially with songs like At The Edge Of The World and Beyond The Sun); perhaps the emphasis towards the softer laid-back Ronnie Scott style rather than synthpop would never had happened with Billy around. But what an encore! To hear that voice one last time, singing such wonderful songs with such heart and feeling – musical perfection is such a rare gift.
So it goes.