I used to think that taste in music is subjective. No longer.
A man might prefer one style of music over another, but universal indicators of great art are instantly obvious to those who are really listening; to those bright souls who are creators themselves.
The first indicator in music is that it has an original sound.
Indeed, techno is techno and jazz is jazz… new styles always fit into old genres, and most music falls in line with a familiar pattern of rhythm, beat, harmony and melody.
But in the artistic sense, an original quality in art is discovered when the artist remains true to one’s own self, and lets their own unique creativity shine through onto the aetheral canvas. Rather than attempting to re-hash the works of their idols or ape the successful productions of others.
When an original sound hits the scene, it is raw and bold. It moves minds and shakes the popular trend.
An original artist has no will other than to create… and this will, being unassuaged of purpose, clear of intent, and freed from the lust of result, is every way perfect (to paraphrase Uncle Al, Book 4).
And if the will to create is pure, how could the product be anything but unique? For it must be a true expression of a unique individual whom no other could replicate.
But an established artist, experiencing celebrity and focusing on promotion over creation, might easily lose his way once his identity is branded.
Fans who become emotionally involved with art have a tendency to over-identify with it and suppose they have some stake in an artist’s evolution. When the money comes, so does a laundry list of expectations from industry profiteers and the fans who vote with their dollar.
This pressure may cause the artist to become stuck trying to be something for others, and ‘acting out’ the caricature-image of his past commercial success.
Always following the popular trend is dangerous because it arrests the artist’s development from moving forward into uncharted caverns of self-expression.
This ‘original’ quality that a piece of musical art contains cannot be measured or copied, it can only be experienced in the listener.
Original music, for lack of better phrase, has a certain ring to it. And that ring makes the music timeless.
When the listener can really lock in to the sound and be transported to rapture, he is connecting directly with the artist… in a way far more vivid than if the two had met for coffee and exchanged words.
We know that when we experience this phenomenon, the art we are hearing was created out of love, and not with the intent of steering the listener’s impression towards some preconceived popular trend.
An original sound has soul. And the soul is the signal that resonates with the listener, communicating a clear message beyond words, and making the art special and memorable.
Now, of course, there is plenty of ‘original’ music that is complete garbage. A piece of art must also be technically sound in its composition and execution in order for it to make waves with the astute listener.
Original garbage is a product of too much heart and soul; not enough brain and balls.
One has to practice and master the craft of music in order to effectively communicate their message through a musical medium. Even the most lucid and beautiful signal won’t be transmitted from a tin-foil radio antenna.
This is obvious with an electronic artist: programming complex drum-codes and learning the language of digital audio composition takes a lot of reasoning intelligence, and a lot of grit and grind to master a finished product.
An artist must understand and master the technology before he is even capable of producing great work.
But learning the technology is just the same with a singer/songwriter strumming a three chord pattern on a guitar. What sounds like a very simple song, may constitute several mastered principles of music theory, lyric writing, motor coordination, strumming techniques and physical control of one’s own vocal range in synchronization with the instrument.
A simple guitar song has brought yours truly to the same level of rapture as an impossibly intricate electronic composition. So technical ability, while absolutely critical, does not on its own merit a gold star for great music.
Professional orchestra musicians, for example, have the technical mastery to follow a piece of sheet music with extreme precision. The ‘WOW’ of this should not be under qualified, and there is perhaps no performance art that compares to a world-class symphony orchestra.
But if that individual musician is only a master of their instrument following notes on a page, can you really call them artists without having created some original music from their own ingenium? Without leveraging their talent for an authentic expression of their own individual self?
Lastly, a piece of music must be truly beautiful to be remarkable. And this is where opinions drift, because indeed beauty is in the eye of the beholder…
But when sick music is enjoyed, or great music is not received: THE BEHOLDER IS THE PROBLEM.
Yours truly enjoys a wide range of musical styles, and has found examples beauty in pop and country the same as rock and trance. I prefer electronic music, because it allows for the greatest range of expressed creativity. One can literally sample any sound on the planet and make beautiful music with it.
If I had to pick one style of music that I absolutely despise it is that soft-cock, whiny, hipster indie-music. It is ugly and awful. It delivers the exact opposite of everything in music that turns me on. And predictably, the people who listen to it are… well… errrr… not my kind of people.
Weak music is enjoyed by weaklings; ugly music is enjoyed by ugly people; Top-40 pop is enjoyed by boring people who require that art be spoon-fed to them by a popular authority.
Most people play radio music just for some throbbing aural stimulation to distracts them from the tedious boredom and existential flat-line that is their own lives.
Beautiful music is enjoyed best by those who have beautiful spirits and wild imaginations. Those who have no limits on where they will let a piece of art take them.
One’s ears must be tuned appropriately to receive great impressions. And impressions must be great in order to be well-received by finely tuned ears.
So when the next man doesn’t enjoy the music that I consider remarkably beautiful, I accept that he is not hearing what I am hearing. His imagination is out of focus.
“When you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” – Mark Twain
Whatever is massively popular and consumed widely by the general public is de facto mediocre and lukewarm. Radio music is vanilla because it is factory produced to appeal to a mass audience.
So when you hear ‘Radio Top-40’… think McDonalds & Bud Light.
Mass-market, low-caliber, bland, lacking completely in flavor and uniqueness…. not to mention unhealthy. Made for people who are too lazy, cheap and tasteless to explore better quality.
Rarely, a very special artist will see mass public appeal AND create art that is objectively remarkable. But generally speaking we can assume that if everyone likes it – it is probably garbage.
But the garbage floating in the mainstream doesn’t even compare to the amount of garbage in the so-called underground. Hipsters like to believe that just because something is underground it is edgy and cool. It may be that, but most of it is shit for listening or dancing.
While most of the best music is indeed underground, not all underground music is great… not but a small fraction.
Underground simply means: not commercially promoted to reach a mass audience. It is music that you have to go looking for… or it has to find you on its own.
You aren’t given permission to enjoy it by the voice of popular opinion.
You have to make your own decision as to whether it is good or not.
Underground music has to survive and thrive by its own exceptionalism.
Having been an audiophile as long as I can remember, I’ve found music in all different genres that has moved me to rapture. But in the last decade, that rapture is mostly found for me in underground electronic music.
There’s that word again – underground. Only used to distinguish it from all that commercial music played on the radio… the stuff you can’t get away from.
Most popular music enjoyed today is indeed electronic. Britney Spears is electronic, hip-hop is electronic… it seems only the country and singer/songwriter crowd is keeping it real with guitars… but even their sound is heavily synthesized and electronically mixed.
So ‘electronic music’ is quite a broad term to define the genre.
‘EDM’ (electronic dance music) is a cute buzzword that has been adopted by the mainstream. I can’t quite figure out what it means. But typically DJs and artists billed as EDM play remixes of pop music over some heavy, disjointed break beats and vanilla house grooves. It all sounds hyper and stunted, made for people with very short attention span and a fiendish need for instant gratification.
While I enjoy electronic dance music as it was before the term was hijacked by the Mtv crowd, I can’t say that I like ‘EDM’. EDM brings us back to the Bud Light and McDonalds paradigm explained above. EDM is boring and mediocre. It lacks balls and ‘bite’.
Sadly, it seems the golden age of original electronic music was in the 90s and early 00’s, when the technology was largely analogue. Most of the releases that really blow my mind came from this era.
Yes… there’s been plenty of great stuff since then, but most of it only achieves a slight pivot from the original artists who had earlier defined the sound.
I am sure there will be new breakthroughs in the future, and there is still a lot of great music being produced now. But you can’t recreate the kick-drum.
I say these selections are essential because they really define their respective musical style. The tracks are essential examples of the style, brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed.
A decade of digging for gems as an audiophile and DJ mixing has led me to these releases. I limited the scope of this list by only suggesting full releases and not single releases. Many of my favorite tracks were released as singles… but then it would be impossible to list them all.
There are plenty of essential releases I missed… and the list is by no means complete. Such a list would be impossible anyway. Artists like Aphex Twin have so many masterpieces under different aliases, it is impossible to pick a ‘best one’. In that case, I’ve recommended the one that I think is best to introduce the listener to a tremendous body of work. I limited the list to one album per artist. Please recommend any that I missed in the comments below!
Alexander Kowalski – Response (techno, house)
Amon Tobin – Permutation (downtempo, breaks)
Aphex Twin – Drukqs (IDM, drum n bass, ambient)
Autechre – Tri-Repetae (IDM, experimental, ambient)
Bad Company – Inside The Machine (drum n bass)
Beanfield – Human Patterns (downtempo, future jazz)
The Beloved – Happiness (synth-pop)
Biosphere – Substrata (ambient)
Blue Planet Corporation – Blue Planet (goa trance, prog)
Bluetech – Elementary Particles (IDM, dub, downtempo)
Coldcut – Let Us Play! (breaks, downtempo)
Cujo – Adventures In Foam (drum n bass, breaks, jazz)
De Phazz – Godsdog (downtempo, breakbeat, jazz)
Der Dritte Raum – Wellenbad (techno)
Detroit Escalator Company – Black Buildings (IDM, ambient, experimental)
FSOL – Accelerator
G-Man – Beautiful (techno)
Global Communication – Blood Music (ambient)
Hallucinogen – Twisted (goa trance)
The Infinity Project – Feeling Weird (goa trance)
Joey Beltram – Aonox (IDM, acid, ambient)
Massive Attack – Mezzanine (trip hop, downtempo)
Nightmares On Wax – In a Space, Outta Sound (downtempo, breaks)
The Orb – U.F.Orb (dub, ambient)
Orbital – In-Sides (mixed styles)
Plastikman – Sheet One (techno, minimal, acid)
Polygon Window – Surfing On Sine Waves (IDM, experimental)
The Prodigy – The Fat Of The Land (mixed styles)
Ricardo Villalobos – Alcachofa (techno, minimal)
Robert Hood – Omega (techno)
Saiko-Pod – Phutures and Options (goa trance, prog)
Scan X – Chroma (techno)
Selffish – Blue Planet Chill (IDM, downtempo)
Solo Andata – Fyris Swan (ambient)
The Source Experience – Different Journeys (techno)
Sasha – Airdrawndagger (breaks, prog trance, ambient)
Spooky – Gargantuan (prog house)
St. Germain – Tourist (downtempo, jazz)
T.Power – The self evident truth… (IDM, drum n bass, breaks)
Technasia – Popsoda (techno, house)
Telefon Tel Aviv – Fahrenheit Fair Enough (IDM, ambient)
Theorem – Nano (techno, minimal)
Trentemoller – The Last Resort (techno, minimal)
Underworld – Anthology (mixed styles)
VA – Dragonfly: A Voyage Into Trance (goa trance)
VA – Tribal Science (goa trance)
16b – Sound From Another Room (house, downtempo)