Plugged In

Just in time for Lollapalooza, a list of the albums you need to understand electronica.

In the beginning, Perry Farrell envisioned Lollapalooza, an event he helped create, as a traveling circus that would expose just-outside-the-mainstream styles to the public at large. A few seasons later, this goal had been largely forgotten: Last year's disastrous tour, headlined by Metallica (not exactly an obscure cult group) and co-starring a slew of practically interchangeable guitar acts, is a case in point. But with Farrell back aboard for this year's edition, Lollapalooza '97, which visits Fiddler's Green on Sunday, August 10, is attempting to revisit the cutting edge by providing the biggest forum yet for what has been designated by the music industry as the Next Big Thing--electronica.

That's not to say that the Lollapalooza bill is pure techno. The main-stage lineup includes Tool, James, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Julian and Damian Marley and the Uprising Band, none of whom would turn many heads at a rave. But joining them are Tricky, a critically acclaimed trip-hop innovator, and the Prodigy, a British collective whose third full-length platter, The Fat of the Land, recently entered the Billboard sales charts at number one. The latter achievement is the clearest indication yet that electronic music is making inroads with the American public and not just with the suits at record companies. However, this success has not come without several notable compromises. When the Prodigy first emerged in the early Nineties, bandmembers Leeroy Thornhill, Maxim, Liam Howlett and Keith Flint made pure dance music and dressed in threads that seemed to have been purchased at New Kids on the Block R Us. But the quartet subsequently was given a more outrageous makeover, both visually (note Flint's newly pierced nose and colored hair) and musically. "Firestarter" and "Breathe," the lead singles from Fat, have as much in common with the industrial sounds of Marilyn Manson as they do with the Prodigy's previous work, while new tracks such as "Diesel Power" and "Serial Thrilla" mimic traditional rock-and-roll song structure associated with Live, Stone Temple Pilots and other stars in decline. The new album does not completely reject the past--"Narayan" and "Climbatize" still resonate with the Prodigy's trademark techno tinkerings and swirling keyboard riffs--but it shows that Flint and company are just as interested in crossing over to the masses as they are in having the masses cross over to them.

As a result, Fat is not an especially good way for people unfamiliar with modern dance sounds to learn what they're all about. That's why I've assembled the following alphabetical roster of eleven CDs designed to fill you in on the electronica movement. All of them are easily accessible and, in my opinion, absolutely vital to understanding where the music's been and where it's going. Take some notes, Perry; this primer will help you get ready for next year.

Aphex Twin
Selected Ambient Works 85-92
(R&S, 1992)

Richard D. James, 25, has released his music under a variety of names, but he's been less shy than most electronica artists about hyping his own, Mozart-esque abilities. Fortunately, Selected Ambient Works, which represents his teenage output, is deserving of the hype. Poetically titled cuts like "Xtal," "Pulsewidth" and "Delphium," generated in large part by equipment James builds himself in his Cornish hideaway, reveal his cunning talent for shaping rhythm beds that make a body lean more toward the armchair than the dance floor. As for his meandering keyboards, which are occasionally sprinkled with samples from David Bowie, Robin Williams and Willy Wonka, they recall the glory days of Brian Eno even as they maintain their distinctiveness. The thumping "Heliosphan" is among the most sublime and majestic pieces in the electronica oeuvre, surpassing even James's early techno anthem "Analogue Bubblebath."

The Art of Noise
Daft (Blessed Are the Noisemakers)
(Zang Tuum Tumb/Warner Bros., 1983)

Gary Langan, Anne Dudley and J.J. Jeczalik (supplemented by producer Trevor Horn) changed the face of pop music when they dropped this percussive, sample-heavy foray into cabaret/disco/whatever onto the early-Eighties London dance scene. Daft--which compiles the album (Who's Afraid of) The Art of Noise? and the EPs Into Battle and Moments in Love--finds the trio successfully integrating found sounds, taped broadcasts, dissonant rhythms and friendly dada madness into an entirely fascinating package. "Beat Box (Diversion 1)" and "Close (to the Edit)," which fared as well on American radio as they did in the clubs, still sound fresh today, while "How to Kill" and "Bright Noise" sport altered vocals, threatening beats and scratching techniques that continue to inspire contemporary pop groups. Dudley went on to work with the Pet Shop Boys, Langan collaborated with P.I.L., Horn made hits for acts like Yes and Seal, and Jeczalik formed a new group, Art of Silence. But none of them on their own have reached the heights they hit together as the Art of Noise.

Brian Eno
The Shutov Assembly
(Opal/Warner Bros., 1992)

Like his European compatriots in Kraftwerk, Roxy Music survivor Brian Eno has been acknowledged as one of the godfathers of electronica. His ambient experiments, which found him constructing musical landscapes and tonal melodies designed to enhance the listener's environment rather than to attract his or her direct attention, were years ahead of their time. But while early works like Discreet Music, Another Green World and Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks are rightfully recognized as masterpieces, The Shutov Assembly, a collection of Eighties work, serves as a better introduction to Eno's universe. "Ikebukuro" provides sixteen minutes of swooping sonics that invite meditation, the creepy "Markgraph" demonstrates how much more interesting new-age music would be if it were infused with a sense of evil, and "Innocenti" slows down a birdsong-like representation of happiness to the speed of sleep. Eno may have helped U2 become the biggest rock group on the planet, but Assembly argues that his own work is even more intriguing.

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