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Philip Sherburne

The Best Electronic Music of the ’90s

This post was originally published on June 6, 2017, on The Dowsers, a “magazine about playlists” produced by Third Bridge Creative. You can read more about that project here.

The 1990s were a crucial turning point in the history of electronic music, the moment when rave culture started to percolate into the mainstream and lay the foundation for EDM’s dominance today. But your perspective on the decade’s best electronic music depends on what side of the pond you were on at the time. So instead of trying to determine a single master list of the best ‘90s electronic tracks, we present you with two—one curated by U.S. native Philip Sherburne and the other by Brit Ben Cardew. Both currently based in Barcelona, they’re the hosts of the Line Noise podcast, and we got them together to discuss their picks, and how their experiences of the decade differed. (Philip’s playlist is to the left; Ben’s is below.)

Ben: Looking at my list in comparison to yours, I would say mine is a lot more poppy—do you agree?

Philip: Thats probably a fair assessment. But then, maybe from a UK perspective, 90s dance music was not that far removed from pop music, and vice versa?

Ben: Exactly. I think one of the keys to electronic music in the 90s—from a British perspective—is how incredibly mainstream it was. Obviously in the ’80s you had raves, the Summer of Love, and hit records. But in the ’90s dance/electronic music was everywhere: the charts, Top of the Pops, Radio 1, etc. And I wanted to get that across.

Philip: This is probably a good place to talk briefly about our criteria. To what extent are these personal faves, and to what extent are you trying to represent some objective picture of the 90s as it was? Because I know that you were an active raver yourself, yet my 90s experience was really limited to listening to records. I got into electronic music in 94 or so via Aphex Twin and Warp and Rephlex, and up until maybe 98, most of my listening was more experimental and ambient and IDM. I started listening to techno then, but didn't really start going out to clubs or festivals until the 2000s. So my list is pretty idiosyncratic—even though I did try to balance personal quirks with some vaguely objective overview.

Ben: Mine is a personal view, but influenced by the fact that I don't think you can talk about ’90s electronic music without the likes of Armand van Helden's Tori Amos remix, which was a No. 1 hit in the UK. I love it. But it is also an important record I think. And as you know, I find it unexpected that many people who are into electronic music in the U.S. don't know that song (I think). I was too young for raves, which petered out about 1991. But I did go to a lot of clubs from ’95 to ’98. I was trying to work out what percentage of these songs I have heard in clubs. Maybe 50.

Philip: But you do have some picks that I certainly wouldn't bring to a desert island, like that Bass-o-matic track.

Ben: You don't like “Fascinating Rhythm”! Oh my good lord, what a tune.

Philip: It's not that... fascinating?

Ben: No, agreed. But it is a great pop tune. The melody is delicious. Maybe we should speak about our number ones?

Philip: You went with Joey Beltram's "Energy Flash," a stone classic—and my No. 3, in fact.

Ben: “Energy Flash” for me is magical. It seems so simple. But so many people have tried to recreate that magic and failed. I literally cant explain why it is so good. Also, it is for dancing. And for me, dance music and electronic music, while not quite synonymous, are very close.

Philip: Thats an interesting point. I know that we discussed that divide, and wishing to keep this list to "dance music" rather than "electronic music," just to keep it semi-manageable and not sprawling. Yet your Primal Scream pick (“Higher Than the Sun”) I wouldn't necessarily call “dance” music.

Ben: You could sway to it. Maybe.

Philip: Im sure many Glastonbury attendees did, quite woozily.

Ben: But I agree with you. I guess I included it because back when it was released—1991, I think—there wasn't so much of a division between "dance" and "electronic." Plus, I had to have something from Screamadelica.

Philip: To get back to number ones, I went with a somewhat counterintuitive pick.

Ben: Yes, I was surprised: why “Domina”? It's not even on my list—although it is a great track, undoubtedly.

Philip: Its pretty simple: When I was ordering the list, I realized that song gave me far more pleasure than any canonical picks. But I also like the fact that its a trans-Atlantic collaboration—Basic Channel and Carl Craig (pictured)—which pretty much sums up two of the most important traditions of the period: Detroit techno and Berlin techno.

 Detroit techno and Berlin techno.

Ben: Absolutely. And, as I think we both found, a lot of the Detroit techno classics were released before the ’90s, which made it a little difficult. Hence, no Derrick May, no Juan Atkins… Okay time to be honest: Anything on my list that you thought, what on Earth is he thinking?

Philip: Not really! Im not crazy about that Bass-o-Matic song, and I don't think of Björk's "Isobel" as “dance” per se but theres nothing that makes me screw up my face uncomfortably. And Im pleased to see you got some Altern 8 in there, because I know you love some Altern 8.

Ben: My good lord, do I love Altern 8. I got into them when I was about 13. Their whole schtick was very appealing to a teenager. I did, I must confess, try on a dust mask. I mean, its pop-rave. If they came out today with that, I doubt I would love them so. Can I call them a cousin to KLF?

Philip: Right. Its a reminder that there is a place for pop-rave—every generation needs it. Im intrigued by the cases where we have different tracks by a given artist. For instance, Galaxy 2 Galaxy's "Jupiter Jazz" for me vs. "Hi-Tech Jazz" for you.

Ben: “Hi-Tech Jazz” was one of those tracks I heard in a club and rushed to the DJ to ask what it was. Luckily, the club was pretty empty so he told me. Its still one of my very favorite techno tracks. It makes the saxophone acceptable. Why “Jupiter Jazz” for you?

Philip: It just has it all for me—the choral pads, the piano, the squealy lead. It's so lush and exuberant. A perfect track, really.

Ben: Ive just realised I forgot Stardancer. For shame.

Philip: Speaking of Stardancer, did we forget Stardust? "Music Sounds Better With You"?

Ben: Stardust aren't on Spotify.

Philip: The songs that aren't on Spotify just mystify me. The biggest culprit: "Deep Burnt." It pains me that there’s no Pepe Bradock on either of our lists.

Ben: Obviously, artists are free to do what they like with their music. But it's going to go on YouTube pretty much whether you like it or not. So why not put it on Spotify? Oh well...

Philip: It was so hard to pick a Moodymann song. I don’t think any one song really represents what’s so amazing about him. Though I would have picked “J.A.N.” if it were on Spotify.

Ben: For me the Moodymann choice was simple: “I Cant Kick This Feeling” is a) so joyous and b) sums up what he is about: a relatively unimportant part of someone else's song looped to brilliant lengths.

Philip: We differed again with MAW: "The Ha Dance" vs. "I Cant Get No Sleep."

Ben: “The Ha Dance” is more influential. But the last half of “I Cant Get No Sleep” is so perfect. I also wanted “To Be In Love.” But it wasnt there.

Philip: Before we wrap this up, are there any songs of yours you particularly want to shout-out as deserving of special attention?

Ben: Good question. Its hard for me to know which songs here aren't more generally known. Because for me they all seem obvious. But maybe Romanthony’s “Hold On” and Todd Edwards’ “Push the Love.”

Philip: Dettinger would probably be my far left-field recommendation; an early Kompakt release that is among my favorite ambient techno. Oh, the other song I have to highlight—again, I was surprised to find it on Spotify—is Crustation's "Flame (Borderline Insanity Dub)," a Mood II Swing remix that is one of my favorite deep house tunes ever. The deepest, swirliest house music imaginable.

Ben: If we're Crustation-spotting—and this, it appears, is the level we have descended—then the Air remix of their song “Purple” is a total classic too.

Philip: Any final observations before we go?

Ben: Yes—when you listen to my list and get to the rap on The Shamen's “Move Any Mountain,” please dont judge me. I was young. And you?

Philip: I’d just like to point out that the “oh” sound in FSOL’s “Papua New Guinea” sounds uncannily like the “oh” in MJ Cole’s “Sincere.” I don't know what that means... but Im sure it means something.

Ben: It means the ’90s circle is complete!

Philip: There you go! This has been fun, Ben. See you back in 2017.

Click here to follow Philip’s playlist on Spotify.

Click here to follow Ben’s playlist on Spotify.

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