Joshua Bayer: Electronica for haters

Daily Arts Writer
Published March 6, 2010

Electronica has a stigma. I know this because when I first bought Kid A and popped it into my stereo, after having spent months wearing out the grooves on The Bends and OK Computer, the first thought that washed over me with dread was: “Fuck. I didn’t know Radiohead did an electronica album.”

Truth be told, I really had no idea what electronica is, or what it could be. To me, electronica was little more than the yuppie-on-ecstasy rave-up techno that polluted radio waves after hours. I saw it more as an excuse to initiate orgies on dance floors than as a legitimate form of music. And if it wasn’t in a club, then it was ambient and boring; the floaty, sleep-tape sort of music that snobs in berets would listen to in order to prove they could.

Electronica is what I’d like to call a “bastard genre” — a genre that, for whatever reason, has been shoved into the backseat of pop culture. Jazz and metal are bastard genres too. And while I’m still slightly terrified of metal, I am here to tell you that electronica is not just for computer nerds and club creepers. It is for you. There is an electronica album out there that will change your life if you listen to it. And I’m hoping that, by giving you an eclectic shortlist of some of the more accessible albums and artists who have changed my life over the years, I can, at the very least, provide you with something that won’t put you to sleep or give you a migraine.

Let’s start with the king, 1998’s Music Has the Right to Children by Boards of Canada. This is the record that popped my cherry, and what I still deem to be the greatest electronica album of all time. YouTube the song “Roygbiv” immediately, for proof that electronica can be warm, immediate, melodic and human. This pop opus is low-key without being drifty and infectious without being obnoxious, clicking along steadily on an assembly-line beat with day-glo synth harmonies that exude a stare-out-the-car-window optimism.

This is one of those albums that takes you to a vivid, alternate, self-contained reality — a sci-fi fantasy world equally sinister and angelic, filled with shapeshifting neon metropolises and enchanted marshes haunted by demonic children. While all of these songs were made on computers, they sound like they weren’t made at all, existing as artifacts from an alien civilization. The whole record feels overwhelmingly organic and fibrous, filled with the noises of trickling rivers, seagull chirps and giggling children, pulsating with warm blood in spite of its throbbing robotic backbone.

But while Music Has the Right to Children is my personal fave, it can’t be denied that Aphex Twin is the kingpin when it comes to contemporary electronica. He released albums in the ’90s that would sound cutting edge today, reinventing his sound with each record and essentially laying the foundation for “intelligent dance music,” the branch of electronica that borders temperately between head-bobbing and head-tripping.

While all of Aphex Twin's albums are their own animals, the best place to start is probably 1996’s Richard D. James Album, his shortest and most immediate. Check out album opener “4” for a taste of the record’s bittersweet balance between trip-over-your-shoelaces breakbeats and cartoonishly symphonic Pixy-Stix harmonies that sound like they were daydreamed by kindergartners, albeit with a refreshing tinge of evil. For anyone who has ever craved the turbo-charged exhilaration of frenetic drum-machine music but has been turned off by the frustrating lack of melody, this is the album for you.

And then there’s the whole “left-field hip hop” realm, perfect for those seeking a chiller alternative to Weezy and Jay-Z. 1996’s Endtroducing… by DJ Shadow, the first album composed entirely of samples, is the granddaddy of this subgenre. The album distorts and mashes together clips from essentially every genre and source imaginable (classical, jazz, hip hop, funk, psychedelia, old TV shows, dub, Tears for Fears, etc.) in ways you would never imagine, uniting it all over mischievous, hard-hitting beats. Compared to Endtroducing…, Girl Talk’s music feels like baby food.

As far as the aughts go, J Dilla’s Donuts has probably picked up the most prestige, and Madlib’s Shades of Blue is pure ear candy, but my personal vote for Best DJ goes out to Flying Lotus, whose albums 1983 and Los Angeles are equally genius.

Listening to Lotus’s music is like being stuck inside a strobe-lit pinball machine, traveling in slow motion. His compositions are bouncy and driving without ever being straightforward — they’re more like dense galaxies, orbiting stutter-like around an entrancing central idea as alien twitters and garbled breathing noises splashily sift around in the mix.

While this list is anything but comprehensive, my hope is that something in this column will encourage you to get your feet wet. Because, as we all know, Cascada (that chick who sings “Everytime We Touch”) is taking over the world. And this is a problem.