5. “Breathe.mp3” (single) – The Prodigy – 1996 – Buy it
Mechanized ticks and thumps whir throughout “Breathe” with an industrial, factory floor-like frenzy, laying a labyrinthine backdrop for the song’s glass-breaking beats. When the synthesizer squelches drop away and a haunting minor-key guitar riff fills the song’s bridge, “Breathe” eerily recalls vintage Joy Division — wiry, menacing, and deeply troubled.
For many suburban kids, the Prodigy was their first exposure to the wave of “techno” music that invaded America in the mid-90’s. While not as controversial as “Firestarter” or “Smack My Bitch Up,” “Breathe” proved to be the strongest, most memorable song on The Fat of The Land, and it’s continuous airplay eventually saturated alternative radio and MTV. In the video, Keith Flint and Maxim are both disturbing and mesmerizing as they trade lyrics and float across the floor of a crack house of horrors filled with rats, cockroaches, and an alligator. “Psychosomatic addict, insane” indeed.
4. “Insomnia.mp3” – (single) – Faithless – 1995 – Buy it
“I can’t get no sleep” is the lyric that usually signals the entrance of “Insomnia (Monster Mix)” into a DJ’s set, triggering euphoria on the dance floor; it may as well be the mantra of hardened ravers, who’s vampiric nights are filled with vodka & red-bulls, ear-splitting bass, and ecstasy. I actually prefer the longer album-version of “Insomnia” which starts with ominous strings and church bells, switches to hip-hop swagger, then finally peaks with a soaring trance finish. Each of it’s three sections is distinct in tempo and tone yet they blend together seamlessly into a well-balanced electronic epic; it’s the “Paranoid Android” of clubland.
3. “Halcyon + On + On.mp3” – Orbital – 1993 – Orbital 2 – Buy it
Hackers is an underrated 1995 techno b-flick that depicts a future where even the most sacred piece of data can be accessed and manipulated by young, mischievous computer geeks. A sort of greatest hits of early electronica, the movie’s soundtrack exposed many to their first listens of Underworld, Prodigy, Leftfield, and Stereo MC’s. But there is no greater find on the album than “Halycon + On + On,” a remix of Orbital’s original tribute to Triazolam.
Nothing with a synthetic heart conveys human emotion so beautifully. “Halcyon + On + On” is electronica in it’s most fully realized state, a 9-minute rollercoaster of beat and melody that somehow flutters by in the blink of an eye. Nick Southall does an unsurpassable job of describing the song’s fusion of “the divine and the man-made” in his article for Stylus magazine, so I won’t even try to say more.
2. “Unfinished Sympathy.mp3” – (single) – Massive Attack – 1991 – Buy it
From it’s lush, organic bass thump to the softly-spoken studio “shhhhh” to the spoons-clicking-on-glass percussion, “Unfinished Sympathy” is the epitome of gorgeous sonic detail and effortless momentum. In 1991, Blue Lines was a groundbreaking album; it’s sleek, sample-driven, jazz-inflected funk literally defined the entire genre of trip-hop. All of the songs on Massive Attack’s debut sounds fresh by today’s standards, but “Unfinished Sympathy,” is something in a class of it’s own — too cerebral and sophisticated for the club but almost unheard on indie radio.
Yet everyone who knows and loves dance music has this track on their iPod. Depending on your state of mind, Shara Nelson’s otherworldly vocals can convey many different things: passionate longing, elegant poise, or unnerving vulnerability. “Unfinished Sympathy” remains a touchstone of electronic music, as close to a classic as there can be in a modern genre.
1. “Born Slippy (Nuxx).mp3” – (single) – Underworld -1996 – Buy it
It’s fitting that “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” is forever tied to the finale of Trainspotting, when Renton escapes Edingurgh’s heroin-riddled underground and “chooses life.” That unforgettable synth riff rises up unexpectedly, as if born on the wings of angels; it’s a moment so uplifting, you’re convinced that even a smack addict just might make it in the real world.
But beauty is deceptive. Once the pummeling beat drops, “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” becomes a freight train of pure endorphin that’s shot directly into the brain and propels you straight to the stratosphere. The high, as it turns out, is impossible to escape.
Superb electronic music is all about beats and transcendental moments, and “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” has both. It’s probably the most identifiable song in electronic music, and it remains a pinnnacle of the 90’s golden era. As Amazon’s Matthew Cooke suggests, “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” took the “growing fad” of rave music and “turned it into a movement.”
This song holds personal memories for me as well. It’s 1998, and I’m a wide-eyed kid just out of college, working in high-tech and concluding my first business trip to the UK. At the last minute, I’m offered the chance to cancel an overseas return flight to Boston and spend an extra night in London at the flat of an affable, albeit somewhat brain-addled colleague. He’s a bit dodgy, so naturally, I accept.
Said colleague is even more fragile than I anticipated because after a rigorous happy hour he retires to bed early, though not before sending me off for a night on the town with his older sister, an icy-cool department manager at Harrod’s in her late 20’s who is so out of my league I’m just fortunate to be riding along in her coat tails.
So I’m drinking with her friends in the corner table of a hip, South London pub and “Born Slippy” comes ripping out of the speakers. The crowd goes ballistic, grinning through glass bottoms and chanting in unison. This is their song. Amazingly, a handful of locals actually climbs atop an oak table, teetering, spilling beer, and literally shouting at that key moment: “Lager, Lager, Lager!”
And the entire bar roars in approval. This, I say to myself, is London. This, I say, is a spectacular moment in a young man’s life.
Next morning, I’m waking up in the oversized crib-turned-day-bed of said colleague’s 3 year-old daughter (she’s staying at her mum’s flat for the weekend) with a dry mouth, a blazing hangover and an all-day flight from Heathrow to Logan staring me in the face like a fucking appendectomy.
But I’ve got those heavenly synth chords ringing in my ears. It’s enough to carry me up out of bed and on my way back home.
Thanks for the informative reviews …
Okay, so I know this blog hasn’t been updated for over a year, and likely never will, but in case you ever come back to read this, I decided I’d post…
This list was really inspirational. Seeing songs I like was a joy, as was discovering new ones that were just as good. You and I share similar tastes and I appreciated the personal touch you added (particularly in the final entry). As such, I was a bit devastated when I tried to come back here again and discovered that http://www.ludditestereo.com was a domain-parking page. I don’t know if I was using the wrong link or if the page actually is gone and this is some sort of “backup”, but needless to say I was worried. I was relieved to find that the google cache remained (though not forever), so I saved all the pages as HTML files. My relief is even greater now to know that this great list is still online (and that I now have a backup without the “google cache” heading), even if it remains abandoned. I’ve been inspired to write my own list, although I have to admit it’s taking me a while to pick my favorites…
In short, thank you for writing this. I’m better off for it.
Thanks for the kind words, Champiness. Indeed, it has been a long time since I updated this blog; I always meant to return to it, but sometimes life gets in the way….
Needless to say, I’m back now, a bit older, more re-energized and eager to write about the music I enjoy. I’ve added a new entry “Best of 2010 collection” and plan on keeping up with this good habit more regularly. Hope you continue to read. I look forward to seeing your list of favorites….