There are legitimate reasons why Pitchfork obsessively churns out lists ranking albums and songs from various genres and eras: They generate heated discussion—and page views—on social media, at bars, water coolers, and in record stores. (Which still exist! Visit one or two today!) The Stranger has responded to two such lists—the 50 Best Northwest Indie Rock Albums and 50 Best Ambient Albums—in recent months and now here we are again. On January 24, Pitchfork published the 50 Best IDM Albums of All Time [Intelligent Dance Music, btw]. Stranger contributor Nick Zurko and I have a few bones to pick:
To be fair, I thought Pitchfork's IDM list was good (better than its shoegaze and ambient surveys), even if it did include some head-scratchers. For example, I like Jlin's Dark Energy, but it's not IDM, even given IDM's broad aesthetic parameters. And Jon Hopkins's Immunity? Seems too indie crossover-y to merit a spot. And although Mouse on Mars earned two berths, their best, Iaora Tahiti, somehow failed to make the cut. Still, Pitchfork earned my respect for slipping in albums by overlooked geniuses like Jan Jelinek (aka Farben), Blectum from Blechdom, Anthony Manning, and Seefeel. It also Warp-ed the list with obligatory LPs by Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Boards of Canada, and Autechre. To do otherwise, though, would simply be contrarianism for its own sake.
(Simon Reynolds's excellent intro details how elusive and amorphous the IDM genre has always been. Determining what is IDM and what isn't can seem like splitting the hairs of an angel dancing on the head of a pin.)
Whatever the case, here are The Stranger's 50 best IDM albums of all time. Let the nitpicking and forehead-slapping commence. (Read more about Zurko's problems with Pitchfork's IDM list on his blog.)
NICK ZURKO'S LIST
Lego Feet, Lego Feet (Skam, 1991/2011). While we've tried to avoid any artists mentioned in Pitchfork's list, this pre-Autechre project is quite the exception. Released on legendary IDM label Skam in 1991, Lego Feet is often overlooked in the IDM narrative because Rob Brown and Sean Booth accomplished what no one else really did until this century: They deconstructed populist rave and UK hardcore tropes in a seemingly straightforward way, introducing on-the dime rhythmic and tempo changes, nonlinear structures, and skipping drums to the equation in a way that still feels unbelievably fresh.
Transllusion, L.I.F.E. (Rephlex, 2002). Prolific doesn't seem to quite capture the fevered pace at which the duo of James Stinson and Gerald Donald continually redefined the rules of contemporary electronic music. They were mainly an electro group, but it's in the pair's solo endeavors that each one somehow reaches new extremes of weirdness, and such a word is a fitting descriptor for L.I.F.E. (or Life Is Fast Ending) in which over the course of its eight tracks, Stinson dismantles the many electro formulas he pioneered to create an album that actually captures the goofy braindance of the Rephlex label while serving as Stinson's final musical statement prior to his death that same year.
Der Zyklus, Biometry (Djak-Up-Bitch/Clone Aqualung Series, 2004/2015). Since we highlighted Stinson of Drexciya fame above, its only fitting that we single out Gerald Donald's most IDM moment. If you're thinking to yourself, this is more of an electro release than IDM, just listen to "Biometric Systems" and tell me that Richard D. James probably didn't lose his mind upon hearing that track for the first time.
Dettinger, Intershop (Kompakt, 1999)
Actress, Splazsh (Honest Jons 2011) If you're going to look at the contemporary practitioners of IDM, Actress is arguably this century's Richard D. James-like figure, able to take hiphop, house, kosmische, and anything else you throw his way and crumple it up into an impossibly new geometrical form. On Splazsh, he took a seemingly too-simple of a concept for an artist of his talents—each song would seek to emulate the work of a different artist who had a big effect on the producer. After a 100 listens, I've identified about three of them, but that's what makes this record so great; Actress doesn't so much pay tribute to his idols as inhabit their psyches.
Stasis, Inspirations (Peacefrog Records, 1994)
Tournesal, Kokotsu (Apollo, 1994)
Jetone, Autumnmonia (Pitchcadet, 2000). Before he went down his own unique path of post-IDM/romantic electronica, Tim Hecker was a young electronic musician attempting to find his voice. While 2001's collection of proto-noise techno bangers—seriously, Ultramarin is shockingly prescient—is worth checking out, if it's IDM you want then Automnmonia is definitely a must-hear as a document of the genre's roots being given new life as a producer who would soon explore the more experimental side of electronic music.
Amon Tobin, Supermodified (Ninja Tune, 2000)
To Rococo Rot, Veiculo (City Slang, 1997)
Jackson & His Computer Band, Smash (Warp, 2005)
Gescom, Skull Snap (Skullsnap, 2011) Another EP, certainly, but one no one was expecting to be as good as it really was when it was released six years ago as if from out of thin air. Taking hiphop as its inspiration, this 20-plus member group that also contains Sean Booth and Rob Brown had something of a breakthrough on Skull Snap, their last EP. On it, the building-block beats of rap are rendered rubbery and elastic as its composers wring every last ounce of inspiration from the rhythmic framework.
Dabrye, One/Three (Ghostly International, 2001)
Nobukazu Takemura, Scope (Thrill Jockey 1998)
Frog Pocket, Gonglot (Planet Mu, 2005)
Pub, Summer (Vertical Form 2001) Summer isn't so much an album as it is a snapshot at IDM at the turn of the century. Plus, the EP clocks in at over an hour and features remixes from the likes of Arovane, Vladislav Delay, and Pub himself, who sounds more relevant in 2017 than he probably did during the days of peak IDM.
Jega, Spectrum (Planet Mu 1998) Fun is not a word that gets used a whole lot when talking about an IDM record, but whenever Jega's debut album Spectrum comes on the turntable with its ever-shifting jungle mutations and after-school melodies, it's impossible not to find yourself wearing a big dumb smile as he races at breakneck speed from idea to idea, barely pausing for more than a secondl
Brothomstates, Claro (Warp, 2001)
Phoenecia, Brownout (Schematic, 2000)
Machine Drum, Now You Know (Merck, 2001) Machine Drum's another producer pairing a hiphop sensibility with the nimble drum programming of IDM. Now You Know moves from the smoked-out vibes and deft drilltronica-like change-ups that would become a staple of his still-booming career.
Mark Fell, Sentielle Objectif Actualité (Editions Mego 2012) Up until this decade, Fell was primarily known as a member of esoteric dance music reductionists SND. But since 2010's Multistability on Raster-Noton, Feel has been honing his pointillistic style of dance music, which took its more accessibly form in his Sensate Focus series of singles. Here, seven of those pieces are remixed by the artist and rendered in dizzying rhythmic shapes that straddle the line between academia and da club.
Errorsmith, Near Disco Dawn: Live Recordings 2001-2003 (Errorsmith 2004) While Pan Sonic's rhythmic templates were always a bit too minimal to draw any real comparisons (though P4K tries!), this live album that no one ever asked for by digital deconstructionist Erik Wiegand features eight tracks pieced together from different performances that employ steady yet mercurial rhythms right out of the Autechre playbook. They make for a more engaging listen, given the challenging nature of the two EPs that preceded this live album.
Mileece, Formations (Lo, 2002) What happens to IDM when you take out the drums? French producer Mileece offers a reply to Jim O'Rourke's garbled digital lullabies from I'm Happy, and I'm Singing, and a 1, 2, 3, 4 as she utilizes software of her own making to create nonlinear and arrhythmic melodies from the dance of light on a windowsill.
Bisk, Strange or Funny-haha? (Sub Rosa, 1997) One of those ultra-rare records that make you think the laws of physics have been obliterated; this is the ultimate in surreal beat science—jazz as reimagined by the brainiest cyborg ever to touch a laptop.
Techno Animal, Re-Entry (Virgin, 1995) Two discs divided into apocalyptic triphop and lysergic ambient; perhaps the zenith of Kevin Martin and Justin Broadrick's long, prolific career in various projects.
Farmersmanual, No Backup (Mego, 1996) Austria's maddest beat scientists find the jagged funk in computer viruses. Check out their fm EP for even more rhythmically radical hijinks.
East Flatbush Project, Tried by 12 Remixes (Chocolate Industries, 1998) A stone-cold underground-hiphop classic tune gets remixed by a rogue's gallery of IDM all-stars like Squarepusher, Autechre, Bisk, Freeform, and Funkstörung.
Ø, Metri (Sähko, 1994). The chilliest, bleepiest minimal techno that ever icepicked your cranium, courtesy of Pan Sonic's Mika Vainio.
Akufen, My Way (Force Inc., 2000) A discombobulating, Cubist reinvention of tech-house that still hasn't been equalled.
Ricardo Villalobos, Thé Au Harem D’Archimède (Perlon, 2004) The pinnacle of complex, epic microhouse, magicked into existence by the Chilean-German master Villalobos.
Sandoz, Intensely Radioactive (Touch, 1994) Cabaret Voltaire member Richard H. Kirk's peak of hypnotic ethno-techno.
Casino Versus Japan, Whole Numbers Play the Basics (Carpark, 2002) The American Boards of Canada, CVJ imbued their downtempo funk reveries with sublime tonal shivers.
The Curse of the Golden Vampire, The Curse of the Golden Vampire (Digital Hardcore, 1998) A delirious summit meeting between Alec Empire and Techno Animal in which dub, shrapnel-laced jungle, and hardcore hiphop collide with ferocious impact.
Muslimgauze, Izlamaphobia (Staalplaat, 1995) British loner Bryn Jones's most inventive and brutal beat séances in a discography that boasts over 100 releases.
Frank Bretschneider/Taylor Deupree, Balance (Mille Plateaux, 2002)
Wagon Christ, Throbbing Pouch (Rising High, 1994)
Neina, Formed Verse (Mille Plateaux, 1999)
Sutekh, Periods.Make.Sense (Force Inc., 2000)
Stephan Mathieu, FrequencyLib (Ritornell, 2001)
Ekkehard Ehlers, Betrieb (Mille Plateaux, 2000)
Kid Spatula, Full Sunken Breaks (Planet Mu, 2000)
Freeform, Green Park (Sub Rosa, 1999)
Takeshi Muto/Metic, Expect More From a Past Life (Schematic, 2000)
Scorn, Evanescence (Earache, 1994)
Monolake, Interstate (Imbalance Computer Music, 1999)
Ryoji Ikeda, +/- (Touch, 1996)
Alec Empire, Low on Ice (The Iceland Sessions) (Mille Plateaux, 1995)
Plug, Drum ’N’ Bass for Papa (Blue Angel, 1996)
Richard Devine, Lipswitch (Schematic, 2000)
Multiphonic Ensemble, King of May (Sub Rosa, 1997)