A while back, we pondered a thought experiment here at Flavorwire: if you could only buy one album a year over the course of 50 years, what would you buy? The result was an epic list of 50 albums everyone needs to own, 1963-2013, and it got such good feedback from our readers, we thought we’d repeat the idea with more specific genre boundaries. In particular, we’re looking at a genre that was in its infancy in the early ’60s and has since evolved into a globe-conquering colossus: electronic music. As before, we’ve selected one album (or, in a few cases, one single) you should own for every year from 1963 to the present day. This, of course, does mean that things are gonna be left out, so feel free to discuss our choices (nicely) in the comment section.
1963: Delia Derbyshire — Doctor Who theme
It’s kinda fortuitous that we’ve started in 1963, actually, because it was the year that gave us one of the most remarkable and influential pieces of electronic music ever written — the theme to Doctor Who, which was the first entirely electronic piece of music for TV. It was arranged by the endlessly fascinating Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop — the recording pre-dated synthesizers, so each note was recorded individually then re-pitched as necessary, and each part was spliced together on insanely long stretches of tape. There’s more about the painstaking process here.
1964: Karlheinz Stockhausen — Mixtur
Stockhausen was one of electronic music’s true pioneers — his earliest work was created during the 1950s, and he worked right up until his death in 2007. This composition for orchestra, four sine wave generators and four ring modulators dates from 1964, and it’s illustrative of his work — abstract and cerebral, fascinating but possibly headache-inducing.
1965: Alvin Lucier — “Music for Solo Performer”
In which experimental composer Alvin Lucier attaches EEG electrodes to his head to amplify his own brainwaves. They did things differently in the 1960s.
1966: David Behrman — Wave Train
A decade before Metal Machine Music, avant garde composer David Behrman was experimenting with the idea of using deliberately induced feedback in sound design. This piece involved recording a piano and allowing the sound to feed back — it’s not exactly easy listening, but it’s a fascinating insight into the spirit of experimentation that characterized early explorations of the use of electronic equipment to make music.
1967: Tom Dissevelt & Kid Baltan — Songs of the Second Moon
This record was made in the Philips Labs in the Netherlands in 1958, but didn’t get a US release until a decade later. It’s pretty amazing abstract electronica that’d sound right at home on Warp today — it’s hard to believe it’s over half a century old. There’s a fascinating video of the duo explaining their methods here.
1968: Silver Apples — Silver Apples
They started life as a traditional rock band called The Overland Stage Electric Band, but once main man Simeon Coxe deployed his array of home-rigged oscillators and pedals, his band evolved into something very, very different. Their 1968 debut hit the Billboard top 200, a pretty remarkable achievement for an album of electronica that still sounds avant garde today, 45 years later.
1969: White Noise — An Electric Storm
Also on the avant garde front, god only knows what people made of this record in 1969. The band was formed in London by US-born composer David Vorhaus, and briefly involved the aforementioned Delia Derbyshire, who contributed to two of the tracks on this album. Its title track, “Black Mass: An Electric Storm in Hell,” sounds like, well, an electric storm in Hell, while “My Gave of Loving” features the sound of various orgasms, and “Love Without Sound” came with a beat that sounds an awful lot like Tricky’s “Ponderosa” and a whole lot of psychedelic sound effects. The whole thing is decades ahead of its time, and compulsory listening.
1970: Tangerine Dream — Electronic Meditation
You could make an argument in favor of Phaedra as the definitive Tangerine Dream album, but we have other things planned for 1974. And in any case, their 1970 debut is in some ways their most remarkable work, given its spirit of unconstrained experimentation — founding Tangerine Dream drummer and electronic pioneer Klaus Schulze described it as “the primary electronic album,” and its extensive use of musique concrete and found sounds presaged the idea of sampling.
1971: Nik Raicevic — Head
There’s some debate around the release date for this acid-drenched obscurity — some sources seem to say 1970, and others 1971. Either way, though, it’s a pretty remarkable listen, a psychedelic soundscape that sounds pretty much exactly like eating an entire blotter and then wandering around in the woods.
1972: Annette Peacock — I’m the One
Peacock was a fascinating artist — she was an early proponent of the Moog synthesizer (having bought one directly from Robert Moog), this record combined free jazz and psychedelic influences with novel ideas like feeding her voice directly into the synthesizer. The result is a record both strange and way ahead of its time.
1973: The Machines — Electronic Music
To be honest, we know absolutely nothing about this record beyond the fact that it was recorded by a group (?) called The Machines and was released in 1973. Some tracks are credited to French experimental composer Nino Nardini, while the rest are credited to British composers John Leach and Nicholas Condron. But shit, just listen to the proto-acid house sound on that track above!
1974: Kraftwerk — Autobahn
Fun, fun, fun, etc.
1975: Synergy — Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra
Barbra Streisand’s session keyboardist, a gentleman by the name of Larry Fast, decides to create a cosmic rock odyssey, and much proggified awesomeness results. Woohoo! Fast was so happy with the results of his excursion into electronic music that he recorded another seven LPs under the Synergy name, and is apparently working on another.
1976: Francis Bebey — La Condition Masculine
Electronic music from mid-’70s Africa? Whyever not? This record by Cameroonian songwriter, scholar, novelist and general renaissance man Francis Bebey involved the use of keyboards and drum machines to reinterpret the traditional music of his country, and the results are pretty incredible. You can hear more of Bebey’s work on the excellent compilation African Electronic Music 1975-1982, which is here.
1977: Various Artists — New Music For Electronic & Recorded Media — Women in Electronic Music
The role of women in pioneering electronic music has often been underestimated — from early trailblazers like Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire to latter-day visionaries like those included on this 1977 compilation. It collates the work of seven composers, both familiar names like Laurie Anderson and less well-known contemporaries like Pauline Oliveiros.
1978: Brian Eno — Music for Airports
In which Eno basically invented ambient music. Amusingly, he really intended for this to be played in airports — it’d make being stuck in the transit lounge at least somewhat tolerable.
1979: Throbbing Gristle — 20 Jazz Funk Greats
Throbbing Gristle’s third album was their most varied and accessible — it was recorded entirely in the studio, unlike its predecessors, which featured various live tracks, and parts of it are downright nice (like the title track, above). Of course, Throbbing Gristle being who they are, it was also supremely disturbing in parts — especially “Persuasion,” which is one of the creepiest tracks that anyone’s ever committed to tape.
1980: Laurie Spiegel — The Expanding Universe
“Epic” doesn’t really begin to do this justice; it sounds like exactly the sort of thing you might want to listen to while you contemplate the mysteries of the universe. Fun fact: one of Spiegel’s compositions was included on Carl Sagan’s gold record, which is still flying out into the great beyond somewhere on Voyager 1 and/or 2.
1981: Yellow Magic Orchestra — Technodelic
YMO were already hugely popular in their native Japan when they recorded this, perhaps their most interesting record. It’s particularly notable for its heavy use of the then-novel techniques of sampling and looping, both of which are in full evidence on “Seoul Music” (above).
1982: The Human League — Dare
The early ’80s saw synthpop take over the world, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of the genre than this classic. Also from 1982: the Blade Runner soundtrack, which inexplicably didn’t get an official release until 1994.
1983: New Order — “Blue Monday”
All together now: duh duh duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh duh duh duh duh!
1984: Alexander Robotnick — Ce N’Est Q’Un Début
Italo! This is particularly notable for classic single “Problèmes D’Amour” (above), which is a song about falling in love with a robot. Love problems, indeed.
1985: Dariush Dolat-Shahi — Electronic Music, Tar and Sehtar
The mid-’80s are best remembered for the ascendancy of synthpop and the first stirrings of what’d become house and techno. Elsewhere in the world, though, there were similarly forward-thinking explorations going on. This record comes from Iran, of all places; it finds composer Darius Dolat-Shahi combining the sounds of the Persian lute with computer generated sounds to create soundscapes that are both timeless and wonderful.
1986: Arthur Russell — World of Echo
The savants at Fact recently named this as their best album of the 1980s, and it’s hard to argue with them. Twenty-five years after its release, there’s still nothing that really sounds like this; both alienated and somehow intimate, the sound of a soul emerging from a world of machines.
1987: Rhythim is Rhythim — “Strings of Life”
Just a single, but one of the most influential pieces of music ever made. Derrick May’s visionary masterpiece laid down the blueprint for what’d come to be called Detroit techno: it’s a sparse but elegant reworking of the sound of Chicago house, with a curious beauty all its own.
1988: 808 State — Newbuild
1989: Beastie Boys — Paul’s Boutique
People can argue until they’re blue in the face about whether hip hop is “electronic music,” but really, as music that’s created by machines, it’s as electronic as electronic gets. Especially when it’s made like Paul’s Boutique — The Dust Brothers’ production is a morass of fragments and samples, all painstakingly re-assembled into slick, coherent new entities.
1990: Public Enemy — Fear of a Black Planet
If Paul’s Boutique was all about studied elegance, Public Enemy’s similarly sample-heavy approach to production was the sonic equivalent of a punch in the face. The Bomb Squad’s methods involved tearing samples down to their component parts and then extracting backing tracks from the chaos. The results created an entirely new sound, and in doing so revolutionized the way people made hip hop.
1991: Massive Attack — Blue Lines
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Bristol’s heritage of dub influences, live instrumentation and super strong marijuana combined to create a new, distinctly English sound — it was dubbed “trip hop,” a term most of its exponents hated. Massive Attack’s debut remains a classic of the genre, and the title track remains their masterpiece, a track where the spaces between the notes are just as important as the notes themselves.
1992: Aphex Twin — Selected Ambient Works 85-92
Richard D. James emerged from the bubbling cauldron of acid house, but his debut studio album was one that was aimed squarely at the brain, not the dance floor. He took Eno’s ambient template and expanded it to encompass beats and a whole galaxy of sounds, in the process creating what’d come to be called (rather conceitedly, it must be said) “intelligent dance music,” as well as laying the template for ambient techno.
1993: Orbital — Orbital 2
Known to all and sundry as “The Brown Album,” this was the brothers Hartnoll’s artistic peak, starting from Orbital’s rave-centric roots but then moving way beyond them in the same way that, say, the Clash did with punk on London Calling. And it samples Withnail and I!
1994: Plastikman — Musik
Richie Hawtin’s Plastikman project took minimalism to new extremes — its tracks comprised loops that explored the artistic value of repetition and subtle variation, creating hypnotic music that was just as at home on the couch with a pair of headphones as it was on the dancefloor.
1995: Goldie — Timeless
Drum. And. Bass.
1996: DJ Shadow — Endtroducing…
The debut album for Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, in which he used a single MPC and a single turntable to create a remarkable post-modern cut-and-paste sample collage. God only knows how long it must have taken.
1997: Björk — Homogenic
She’s not often thought of as an electronic artist per se, but Björk has long been an innovator in the areas of both technology and production. This album, in particular, found her focusing specifically on electronic sounds, combining them with live strings to create a sound for the record that was both both distinctive and homogenous (indeed, the latter word’s was the album’s original title.)
1998: Boards of Canada — Music Has the Right to Children
Judging by the almighty hullaballoo around the release of Tomorrow’s Harvest earlier this year, there were a lot of people who like Boards of Canada’s work very much indeed. This is the band’s debut album and, in Flavorwire’s opinion, remains their masterpiece, a flawless work of cerebral electronica that still sounds startlingly contemporary. (Also, the fan-made video to “Roygbiv” above is all kinds of awesome.)
1999: Gas — Königsforst
Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas project produced four remarkable albums between 1996 and 2000; you really can’t go wrong with any of them, but we’re particularly partial to this third release. It’s named after the forest near Cologne where Voigt used to drop acid in his youth, and the music has a liquid, organic quality to it that seems to evoke stumbling around in the wet forest in the middle of the night, marveling at the beauty of it all.
2000: The Avalanches — Since I Left You
The album that took the entirely-from-samples idea to a whole new level, and probably still gives sample clearance lawyers sleepless nights. More than a decade later, we’re still waiting for a follow-up.
2001: Pan Sonic — Aaltopiiri
There are some acts whose music isn’t so much heard as felt — bands like Sunn 0))), for instance, seem to affect you on a physical level as anything. So it goes with Finnish duo Mika Vainio and Ilpo Väisänen, who work together as Pan Sonic (they used to be Panasonic until the electronics company threatened to sue them), and make music that’s powerful and visceral, all heavy low end and spectral, echoing beats.
2002: 2ManyDJs — As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt 2
You can probably blame the existence of Girl Talk on this album, but in fairness, it’s not really 2ManyDJs’ fault — their genre-hopping cut-and-pasting on this mix was inspired, and none of their legion of imitators have ever gotten close to recreating its glory.
2003: Ricardo Villalobos — Alcachofa
The folk at Resident Advisor voted this their best album of the 2000s, and you can see why — as they noted at the time, the album is both minimal and full of depth. As Lou Reed said about Yeezus, “it’s minimalist but the parts are maximalist” — the parts on Alcachofa aren’t so much maximalist as they are intricate, rewarding a good careful listen with a good pair of headphones.
2004: Squarepusher — Ultravistor
2004 was a curiously fallow year for electronic music, and while this isn’t necessarily Squarepusher’s best album, it was head and shoulders about most of the other electronic stuff released during that year. And it’s still pretty impressive listening, in a head-melting kind of way — Tom Jenkinson described it as “my spectacle of beauty and of terror,” and it certainly fits both adjectives down to a tee.
2005: Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto — Insen
This record found former Yellow Magic Orchestra main man and visionary pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto working with glitch artist Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto.) The collaborations sounded exactly like one might expect — atmospheric piano layered over glitchy, fractured electronic backing tracks — but they worked remarkably well, creating soundscapes with a strange, otherworldly beauty.
2006: The Knife — Silent Shout
We’ve often argued on Flavorwire that Fever Ray’s 2009 self-titled album is the apogee of all things Dreijer-related, but there are still many, many arguments to be made in favor of Silent Shout. Its sound is as uncategorizable as it is instantly recognizable, with Karin Dreijer Andersson’s signature pitch-shifted vocals set over backing tracks both dark and danceable. It doesn’t quite match the ambition of Shaking the Habitual, perhaps, but it’s a much more coherent listen.
2007: Burial — Untrue
Before Skrillex took the name “dubstep” and absconded with it, the label referred to a sound that combined the languidly ominous bass-heavy sound of dub with the rhythms of 2-step garage. Burial’s 2007 masterpiece pretty much defines and perfects the idea, claustrophobic and sinister but somehow also organic and beautiful.
2008: Portishead — Third
Portishead return from a decade in the wilderness with an album that isn’t just comparable to their former glories — it’s better. Who’da thought it?
2009: Kevin Drumm — Imperial Horizon
A latter-day ambient techno masterpiece. Imperial Horizon comprises just one track — “Just Lay Down and Forget It” — that unfolds over the course of 65 minutes, creating an immersive sonic experience that’s transportive and strangely beautiful in its own dark way.
2010: Oneohtrix Point Never — Returnal
IDM has long since been buried as a genre descriptor, and rightly so. But if you’re after cerebral electronic music, you really need look no further than the work of Daniel Lopatin, who released three fantastic albums over the course of three years before signing to Warp, a label that seems not so much his spiritual home and his destiny. This, the second of the three, is particularly good, but they’re all worth hearing.
2011: Motion Sickness of Time Travel — Luminaries and Synastry
Even more prolific is Atlanta-based Rachel Evans, who’s been working under the Motion Sickness of Time Travel moniker since 2008, and has in that time released a slew of music, pretty much all of it excellent. Her sound is drone-based and atmospheric, but also characterized by a certain lightness of touch, and it’s been an ongoing pleasure to watch its continuing evolution.
2012: Holly Herndon — Movement
As the holder of an MFA (and soon a PhD) in electronic music, Holly Herndon knows a whole lot more about the form than you or me, and she put her knowledge to good use in the production of her debut album. Movement is both cerebral and accessible, exploring the idea of conjuring an evocation of the human experience from the cold circuitry of a laptop.
2013 (so far): Kanye West — Yeezus
The production! Seriously!