Ten of the best – 1996

Having recently noticed the 25-year anniversaries of some classic albums, I realised just how many of my favourites were released in 1996. So here’s ten of them. Far from being a definitive list, these are just ten albums I’m particularly fond of. They’re not presented in any sort of rank order, and comparin say Eels, to Dave Clarke, to Kool Keith doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anyway. I’m aware there are a ton more I could’ve included, but hopefully there’s some in the list you enjoy – and what others would you have put in?

Eels – Beautiful Freak

Beautiful Freak stands as something of an oddity in Eels’ back catalogue, as the only album released as a trio, before the pretence was dropped that this was anything other than a Mark Everett solo project. E’s direct and emotional songwriting style doesn’t sit comfortably with the heavier rock sound the label pushed them into. Having created an unlikely ‘college radio’ hit with Novocaine for the Soul, they wanted more tunes that students could blast out of their car speakers.

But while it’s clear the band don’t feel completely comfortable in their sound, E’s lyrical voice and musical style is already pretty much fully-formed (thanks to several years obsessively recording and playing music and two solo albums under his belt already). And despite this being almost entirely the work of Mark Everett, Butch’s drumming has always been key to their sound, and along with the use of samples (the Fats Domino drum break on Novocaine for the Soul or the Gladys Knight piano breakdown on Susan’s House) has always given Eels something of a hip-hop slant

Stand out tracks: Novocaine for the Soul, Susan’s House – obviously, but also Flower and the heart-wrenching, Manchild..

Suede – Coming Up

Despite containing five of their biggest hits, Coming Up is far from being Suede’s best album. Much like Blur’s Great Escape, there’s something dark and hollow at the centre, a lack of sincere emotion. The result of too much cocaine, fame, and hubris – in a way ‘Coming Down’ would’ve been a better title. This is Suede at their shiniest and most bombastic – their cellophane sound – and to be fair no one can touch them on bangers like Trash, Beautiful Ones and Lazy. But for me it was always the slower ballads, By the Sea and Picnic by the Motorway, that made Coming Up worth returning to over and over.

Stand out tracks: Beautiful Ones, Lazy, By the Sea

Dr Octagon – Dr Octagonecologist

The creation of Kool Keith, one time Ultramagnetic MC, Dr Octagon is a horny gynaecologist with questionable ethics, who may have travelled to earth from another realm entirely. Just the man to call if you get a bad case of chimpanzee acne though. Dr Octagonecologist is riddled with pornographic and scatalogical references, but despite the laughs and gross-out humour there’s also the sound of an artist striving to reinvent himself, and hip-hop itself in the process. The combination of Dan the Automator’s tripped out b-movie horror production, Q-Bert’s turntablist skills and Keith’s dense, absurdist lyrical flow make for a piece of darkly comic twisted genius, that helped push rap to the year 3000.

Stand out tracks: Blue Flowers, Bear Witness, 3000, Real Raw

Aphex Twin – Richard D James Album

Although it’s barely over half an hour long, the RDJ album is one of the most cohesive, coherent and mind-bending albums in any genre of music. Yet despite its mind-bending properties, I’ve always found something innately comforting about these ten tracks. I don’t know whether that’s purely due to familiarity born of hundreds of repeat listens, but it’s an album I often turn to when in need of restoring mental balance. Part of this album’s genius lies in the way it manages to be both accessible, full of instantly catchy melodies, yet also sound like no other music did at the time (or much since to be honest). Thanks to this weird combination of familiarity and unknowableness, it feels like a recently unearthed artifact something left for us to find by another intelligence.

Stand out tracks: Girl/Bong Song, 4, To Cure a Weakling Child

Squarepusher – Feed me Weird Things

Squarepusher’s full-length debut, released on Rephlex, rather than Warp where he’d gone on to make his permanent home. I actually got rid of my CD copy of FMWT, having copied a handful of tracks I liked onto CDr, which was the kind of stupid shit I did back in the day. Although it’s rough around the edges and arguably too long in places (hence my younger self’s hasty decision to trim it down) FMWT is the blueprint for the unique sound Squarepusher would go on to perfect; fusing jazz, live bass guitar, jungle and drum’n’bass, all driven by a restlessly experimental and virtuosic spirit.

Stand out tracks – Tundra, Theme from Ernest Borgnine, Dimotane Co.

Dave Clarke – Archive One

A compilation rather than an album, Archive One gathers some of the best tracks from Dave Clarke’s early run of singles, and is as good a slab of banging 90s techno as you could wish for. From the breaksy No One’s Driving, to the Detroit-inspired Miles Away, to the hardcore edged Thunder, Clarke demonstrates his proficiency at a range of styles. Nothing fancy or pretentious here, just timeless techno music that I’m happy to come back to again and again. Wisdom to the Wise is the pick of the bunch, an absolute beast, instantly recognisable from the first hit of the bass kick drum whenever it’s played out.

Stand out tracks – Wisdom to the Wise, Storm, No one’s Driving

Underworld – Second Toughest in the Infants

Underworld hit a real purple patch during the mid 90s, with a run of albums and EPs that put them out of sight of pretty much everyone else at the time. In the process, they changed the limitations of what ‘dance’ music could be, taking it beyond high energy rave and transforming it into something truly monumental. Born Slippy became a massive hit due to its appearance in Trainspotting at the same time, but is conspicuous by its absence here. In the main, Second Toughest showcases Underworld’s more introspective side. Karl’s jumbled word collages are much too chaotic and free flowing to be thought of as conventional songs. But occasionally a lyric will hit you right between the eyes, or take on mysterious significance, like a fragment from a dream recalled late into the following day.

The scene is set with the three-part ‘suite’, Juanita:Kiteless:To dream of love, whose meandering free-flowing nature is archetypal of the album as a whole. The rolling beat and guitar-stabs make it the perfect soundtrack for a high-speed car journey, which is pretty much the ideal context for most Underworld tracks. Landmarks gradually appear, then loom closer, only to flash by and the whole cycle repeats again, over a ground of flickering white lines, headlights and road signs, in constant motion. Underworld’s music has always had a relentless, hypnotic quality. And despite its subdued and introspect nature, that’s fully in evidence on Second Toughest. Whether it’s the tense synth riff on Air Towel, the twanging guitar on Barnstyle, or Karl Hyde’s frantic tumbling vocals on Pearl’s Girl.

Stand out tracks: Pearl’s Girl, Juanita:Kiteless:To dream of love

Stereolab – Emperor Tomato Ketchup

Stereolab fused the suave chic styles of the 1960s with that era’s obsession with a technology-powered utopia that seemed just around the corner. The combination of this retro-futuristic aesthetic with the band’s English/French concord seems to place Stereolab in an alternative reality that runs alongside our own. This makes their masterpiece, Emperor Tomato Ketchup, a timeless record that sounds as fresh and relevant today as ever. Metronomic Underground burbles into life with electronic squelches and crackles, to be joined by the driving motorik guitar hook, which remains locked in a groove for the entirety of the track, as layers of drones build up to a hazy climax . The mantra-like lyrics paraphrase a chapter of the Tao te Ching, and like many of Stereolab’s songs, it’s tempting to read them as notes from a manifesto for radical political revolution.

“Those who know do not talk, Those who talk do not know, Keep the mouth closed, Rounding the sharpness, To be infinite, To be vacuous, (Crazy, sturdy, brutal, a torpedo)”

“Those who know do not talk, Those who talk do not know, Keep your mouth closed, Guard your senses, Temper your sharpness, Simplify your problems, Mask your brightness, Be at one with the dust of the earth, This is primal union.” Tao Te Ching – Chapter 56

The rest of Emperor Tomato Ketchup is equally brilliant, with looping layers of 1960s lounge-pop, Krautrock and psychedelia. The definitive album from one of the most distinctive and original bands of the 90s.

Stand out tracks: Metronomic Underground, Cybele’s Reverie, Motoroller Scalatron

Future Sound of London – Dead Cities

My CD copy was a trusted companion back in the day, not that I’ve listened to it on CD for at least a decade. It’s hard to sum up this album succinctly, apart from to say it’s one of my favourite of all time. Dark, rhythmic, lush, complex, futuristic, otherworldly – it’s a pure trip from start to finish and will always be emblematic of that time in my life when I first discovered the mind-expanding potential of music. 

On Dead Cities, Cobain and Dougans create a completely immersive world, a dystopian tribal London of the far future. So fully realised is this world that disparate samples, from Ennio Morricone, to Blade Runner to Santana, to field recordings taken from Hyde Park are united in what feels like a coherent narrative. The voices that echo throughout the album feel like the same characters on a journey, and as a wide-eyed teenager I used to think up imaginary sci-fi movies to correspond to the music. 

Revisiting it now, the cyberpunk aesthetic of both the artwork and music seems impossibly 90s. Electronic music would soon move away from this maximal approach and new-age embrace of worldly sounds, in favour of an ultra-precise focus on rhythm and micro-textures. And the Future Sound of London completely retreated from public view, not to surface until six years later, reborn as a 60s psychedelic pastiche act. Rumours swirled of unpredictable behaviour and possible descent into madness, but the truth turned out to be more prosaic – a period of ill-health caused by mercury in tooth-fillings. 

Since then, the duo have gone on to release a vast trove of new and archive material, which will keep fans like me busy for years. But Dead Cities will always stand as a singular peak in the discography of a unique act, one that cast a long and murky shadow over electronic music for years afterward. 

Stand out tracks: My Kingdom, Everyone in the World is Doing Something Without Me, Yage

DJ Shadow – Entroducing

An unquestionable masterpiece, it’s ironic that as well as being the first album to be composed entirely of sampled material, Endtroducing remains the absolute pinnacle of the style. Sometimes the stars happen to align just right and Josh Davis managed to channel Tangerine Dream, Grandmaster Flash, the Isley Brothers and dozens more from a life spent digging the crates, into something profound, timeless and era-defining.

The use of sampling to colour tracks with a particular mood is so commonplace now, we barely notice it -pop artists and their producers are happy to draw on all manner of disparate sources. And although there were countless other artists making music this way in the 90s, something about Endtroducing goes to the heart of what sample-based music can be, and the collage-like nature of electronic music in general. By forging a path through soul, funk, rock, hip-hop, electro and ending up somewhere unique but familiar. Shadow was notorious for his early insistence that Endtroducing is a hip-hop album, and though it clearly owes a huge debt to hip-hop, it transcends all boundaries.

Stand out tracks: Building Steam with a Grain of Salt, Stem/Long Stem, Midnight in a Perfect World, Naplam Brain/Scatter Brain

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