Electronica Recordings to Hear Before You Die

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Selected Ambient Works

Aphex Twin

Like lots of people involved in electronic dance music, Richard D. James—operating under the nom de pop Aphex Twin—learned how to use synthesizers and beat boxes (and even sandpaper on a turntable instead of a vinyl record) to make powerful, transformative music. He created some notable stuff in the early ’90s, earning a reputation (and significant cash) as a remixer with a knack for scrumptious, detailed tracks. Meanwhile his heart was elsewhere. For his own amusement, he began exploring less frenetic pulses that pull apart the building blocks of electronica. With this measured, understated music—collected on the homemade Selected Ambient Works 85–92—James became the patriarch of ambient techno.

To most of humanity, “ambient techno” will seem another meaningless genre classification, and a contradiction besides—techno connotes pulse and motion, while ambient music suggests sounds that could hover in the air for hours. James reconciles these ideas brilliantly. He surrounds simple, steady beats with synthesized “auras” that seem to envelop the sound field, radiating calm. His settings are uncluttered. At times the sharp edges of electronica are blunted by the recording, which was allegedly made on a primitive four-track cassette machine. This turns out to be a positive: While much club music is so pristine as to be off-putting, the soundscapes on Selected Ambient Works—particularly the eerily pastoral “Ageispolis” and “Pulsewidth”—are mysterious, inviting in a fuzzy analog way.

This album is one of a small cluster of electronica records designed for listening and reflection. Incredibly, it’s also got a bit of the Ecstasy generation’s joy in it. Taking just a step away from clubland, James finds himself in a detached, desolate netherworld, yet with the energy and the lust of the club still ringing in his ears. This inspires music that aims for the scope of a symphony orchestra, and the sudden subtle emotional ripples of great piano-trio jazz. Listen on headphones to fully appreciate the bubbling and bright possibilities James found while puttering in the lab.

GENRE: Electronica.
RELEASED: 1993, Apollo. (Reissued 2002, PIAS America.)
KEY TRACKS: “Ageispolis,” “We Are the Music Makers,” “Pulsewidth,” “Delphium.”


Tangerine Dream

You know those fancy spas, the ones that advertise how they’ll bring you to your mellow place and, for a premium fee, lead you through calming meditations and salt scrubs and such? They don’t want you to know about records like this. For a whole lot less money, Tangerine Dream will chill you out, loosen the grip of the grid, and help you transition to a quieter, more reflective state of mind.

The music Tangerine Dream made during the mid-1970s, its most creative period, has been described as “space ambience” and “stoner nirvana.” It’s all that and an EPCOT ride too, a tour through vast desolate lunar landscapes (or a hyperreal simulation). This two-part piece continues the basic ideas the German trio, formed by Edgar Froese in 1967, explored so skillfully on its previous album Phaedra, the oft-maligned ambient milestone that put the group in the Top 20 of the British Album charts for the first time. There are lush cascades of echo-chamber sound and slow-moving swirls of otherworldly strings created on the tape-based instrument known as the mellotron.

But Rubycon adds more rhythmic synthesizer blips, recurring patterns that pulsate beneath the surface. And its “Part Two” is much darker than anything on Phaedra: Propelled by solemn electronically generated male voices, it begins in the murky oceanic depths. As the voices trail off, the music seems to brighten, slowly ascending until, in the final moments, glimmers of daylight poke through. This voyaging vision of sound, ever-unfolding and not quite ever arriving, has been imitated endlessly since 1975. But somehow its admirers haven’t quite captured the openness and faraway grandeur of Tangerine Dream.

GENRES: Electronica, Rock.
RELEASED: 1975, Virgin.
KEY TRACKS: “Rubycon,” “Rubycon (Part II).”