The past decade in electronic music has been fitful and fruitful, with slews of new sounds and progress both big and small. Here’s an attempt to take stock of some of the main movements and the albums that attended them. (Some of the biggest ones appear in our upcoming Top 50 Albums Of The ’00s list, so take this list as an addendum.)
Various artists, Clicks + Cuts (Mille Plateaux, 2000)
The prevalence of minimalism in sounds of all kinds was the biggest story in electronic music throughout the 2000s. It served as a specific distinction in various styles that slimmed down and tightened up, and it served as a general directive in the way it taught producers and listeners alike to hone in—to venture all the more deeply into a realm where the lines between sonic sweep and dutiful detail begin to blur. The epochal double-disc compilation Clicks + Cuts signaled the movement in a big way (or a small way) when it came out in 2000 on the arty German techno label Mille Plateaux. The artists include SND, Farben, Vladislav Delay, Pan Sonic, Pole, Thomas Brinkmann, and Alva Noto, and the sounds run from meticulous rhythmic ellipses to barely-there hums.
Michael Mayer, Immer (Kompakt, 2002) / Triple R, Friends (Kompakt, 2002)
As co-head of Kompakt Records, Michael Mayer shaped what clubbers danced to as decisively as anyone in the decade, and Immer is one of those rare DJ sets that sums up its era and escapes it entirely. It’s a luxurious selection, shamelessly florid at times—see Carsten Jost’s “You Don’t Need A Weatherman (Superpitcher Remix),” complete with bird calls, or the Superpitcher/Tobias Thomas mix of Phantom/Ghost’s “Perfect Lovers,” which is so deliciously goth, it practically comes with its own haunted castle. It’s also expertly paced enough to not just get away with it, but thrive. By contrast, Triple R’s Friends—same label, same year, same great taste—is friskier and subtler. It may be the cuddliest dance mix ever assembled, intimate without inertia. It starts off gorgeous, with Robag Wruhme’s remix of Metaboman’s “Easy Woman,” and gets more so, reaching a dazzling peak with Dntel and Ben Gibbard’s “(This Is) The Dream of Evan And Chan,” also remixed by Superpitcher, whose distant shaking bells push the mix from brilliant to classic.
Various artists, Pure Garage II (Warner Music, 2000) / Zed Bias, Sound Of The Pirates (Locked On, 2000) / Todd Edwards, Full On Volume 1 (i!, 2001)
The dawn of the new millennium in London brought about a new sound that was flush and flooded with champagne, at least initially. The sound, known as two-step garage (or just UK garage), couldn’t have been cooler. Serving as an update of drum-and-bass for a less dystopian and less male-dominated crowd, it slowed breakbeat madness down to sexy house-music speed, and drew from various ticks and tricks employed in American R&B by the likes of Timbaland. The great two-disc comp Pure Garage II captures two-step at its most fantastically chaotic and poppy, while the Zed Bias mix Sound Of The Pirates focuses on its more ruffneck roll. (Think beats that thwack and lots and lots of bass pressure.) Then there’s the work of Todd Edwards, a genius from New Jersey who helped seed the sound of UK garage: The first volume of his retrospective Full On series features god-sent tracks made from hundreds of snippets of vocal samples and beats that seem to never touch the ground.
Warm, enveloping, and riddled with doubt, the debut of Luomo (one of the monikers of Finnish producer Sasu Ripatti) remains one of the decade’s most audacious mergers. Deep-house beats and (especially) bass merged with glitch-techno methodology and dub production technique on six long tracks that drifted and nagged in equal measure. The vocals themselves are drenched with feeling but retain a sense of mystery, thanks to Ripatti’s treatment of them—they haunt the mix, alternately submerged and overpowering, as unstable sonically as they are emotionally.
Matthew Herbert, Lets All Make Mistakes (Tresor, 2000) / Herbert, Bodily Functions (K7, 2001)
Matthew Herbert is an Englishman who wields an uncommon command of all that can make machine-music wiggle and swing. He’s done all sorts of work, from protest music made from the sounds of industrialized chickens to big-band jazz. But his masterpieces so far remain a DJ mix from 2000 and a collection of glitchy torch songs from 2001. The former, Lets All Make Mistakes, features a manhandled set that moves through lots of slaphappy microhouse syncopation and playfully noisy forays. The latter, Bodily Functions, is an unerringly poised artist album that features highly musical programming and some of the most potent, stirring breakup songs ever written. Among all the iconoclasts active in electronic music in the past decade, Herbert is truly unique.
Lots of people in the ’00s called minimal house and techno bloodless and de-eroticized, but not while these albums were playing. Superlongevity, a double-CD mix of the luscious early catalog of the German label Perlon (then in Frankfurt, now moved, like so many other dance-music luminaries, to Berlin), keeps the aural surprises coming for its entire two and a half hours, and from the heaving low end of Baby Ford & Zip’s “Windowshopping” to Narcotic Syntax’s “Merenguerilla,” with its slurred Spanish female vocal, the label showcases itself as first-rate seduction music, as well as techno’s most playful outlet. MRI—Frankfurters Stephan Lieb and Frank Elting—applied similarly restless methodology to a more heavily disco-fied framework on All That Glitters, and on tracks like “Sane And Sound” and “Nightclubbing At Home,” tetchy snares and flickering synths make their pulsing frames seem just a little homier.
Ricardo Villalobos, Thé Au Harem D’Archimède (Perlon, 2004) / Fizheuer Zieheuer (Playhouse, 2006)
Ricardo Villalobos has carved out his own distinctive space as a certifiable superstar DJ and a producer known for mercurial, hermetic expeditions into deep cosmological wormholes. The latter have played out on a number of striking records covered with timbral techno textures and slinky hand-drum runs, but 2004’s Thé Au Harem D’Archimède remains the best, for all its heady singularity and restraint. For its part, 2006’s Fizheuer Zieheuer is better taken as a gesture than as a masterwork—but what a gesture! It’s basically a 37-minute track that moves all sorts of subtle variations as it snakes around and around elements such as a Balkan brass-band sample.
2 Many DJ’s, As Heard On Radio Soulwax Pt. 2 (PIAS, 2002)
Belgian brothers Steven and David Dewaele had fabulous timing in more ways than one. As 2 Many DJ’s, they could drop Röyksopp’s gliding “Eple” in the middle of Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5” and make the join nearly invisible—just one of the many what-was-that? segues that makes Radio Soulwax 2 such an endless delight. And the Dewaeles’ instant-classic mix came along right as the mp3 and the iPod were beginning to help listeners make hash of strict musical divisions: Not only could everyone now hear everything under the sun with the click of a finger, the Dewaeles made such rampant try-anything-ism sound like the only way to hear it. Cheap-and-nasty electroclash queen Peaches was welded to her sneering spiritual godparents in The Velvet Underground, and the mid-’90s were reduced to a thrilling blend of Skee-Lo’s novelty rap “I Wish” and The Breeders’ giddy alt-rock hit “Cannonball.” In addition, raw tracks by Vitalic, Felix Da Housecat, and Adult. handed overblown arena-trance its overdue pink slip. Blame Radio Soulwax 2 for a decade of faux-hawks if you want, but no one in the ’00s made a better party album.
DJ /rupture, Gold Teeth Thief (Soot/Violent Turd, 2001)
Brooklyn’s Jace Clayton produces records and writes criticism so well that the fact that he’s a show-stopping DJ is almost a bonus. But in fact, as DJ /rupture, Clayton has done more than any other figure this side of M.I.A. to push global-minded bass music as the next step in beat culture. The way he hears it, hip-hop is the world’s lingua franca, an older generation’s ideal of a global village rendered in a much more to-the-ground sense as something more akin to a global ghetto. And while 2001’s Gold Teeth Thief, like the other mixes Clayton has made over the decade, is as lightning-fast and exhilarating as 2 Many DJ’s, its eclecticism is sharper and broader, and it cuts deeper. Dancehall, dub, rap, an assortment of pan-African styles north and south, laptop glitch, and hyperkinetic breakbeat explosions form a sinuous line that paints the world Clayton’s listeners would come to recognize better over the years—but time has only intensified his vision. (Available for download: http://www.negrophonic.com/goldteeththief.htm)
Sampling promised an unlimited array of sonic possibilities, but few of its artisans have employed it with anything like the free sense of play of Australian sextet The Avalanches. Since I Left You crams some 900 samples into an hour-plus that seems to float along on its own cloud, and not just because it utilizes so damn many string sections. It’s one of electronic music’s most whimsical creations, from the neighing horse that hooks “Frontier Psychiatrist” to the shivering theremin and soprano choirs of “Electricity” to “Flight Tonight”’s beats that go splat. A sprite sings about finding “a world so new” at the beginning; the rest of the album is the sound of going there and back.
It’s hard, as the decade comes to a close, to take score of the sound known as dubstep, both because it’s so pointedly diffuse, and because it’s still developing. But even if no dubstep album makes a clear and easy case for fully realized classic status, the genre has thrown out a wealth of notable records with lots of promise. Chief among them is Burial’s Untrue, a haunted 2007 collection of ghost ballads with desiccated skip-start beats and mercury-poisoned voices. Then there’s something newer like 2562’s Unbalance, which fans the distinctive dubstep tempo through more styles and skins than would seem to make sense. The book on dubstep is still waiting to be written, but the above (along with recent work by the likes of Joker, Untold, Zomby, and Martyn, among others) make a good case for that book being worthwhile.