Five years ago, electronica was poised to save us from the grungy din of a dying alternative and an increasingly formulaic hip-hop. Detroit and Chicago had become adjectives, Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers were storming the charts, mainstream magazines began running monthly "What You Need to Know About Jungle" articles, and DJs like Paul Oakenfold and Sasha & Digweed were quickly becoming household names. By the time the bass kicked in, though, it seemed that the Great Electronic Hope had fizzled. Teen-pop and nü-metal came and went, New York's superclubs were gradually dismantled, and rather than take the world by storm, electronica filtered slowly (but surely) into the mainstream by way of artists like Madonna, Radiohead, and Moby. In celebration of the coup that failed to overthrow the music industry (but continues to flourish on dance floors, headphones, and television commercials around the globe), Slant Magazine asked 300 music journalists, DJs, and record label-folk to tell us what they thought were the most important electronic albums of the 20th Century. Any subgenre was fair game (disco, house, drum n' bass, trance, ambient, trip-hop, techno, etc.). Close to 200 different albums were mentioned and, since no list could possibly be entirely inclusive, we've whittled the raw data down to 25 key releases from the last 25 years.
25. The KLF, The White Room (1991). Following the global success of "Doctorin' the Tardis" from 1988's Dr. Who, Bill Drummond and Jimi Cauty formed the KLF ("Kopyright Liberation Front"). After a foray into chill out, the duo found crossover success with 1991's The White Room, an album that helped bring rave culture to the fore. Call it what you will (acid house, stadium house, rave), the album was pure dance-pop at its finest. Hits like "What Time Is Love" and "3 A.M. Eternal" kept the pair riding high on the charts while the single "Justified and Ancient" turned Tammy Wynette, "The First Lady of Country," into a post-disco club diva. Filled with the utopian mythology of "The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu" and the duo's ice cream van iconography, the album mixed breaks, samples and drum machines with dramatic vocals and other organic elements. The eccentric duo (they've staged pagan rituals, carved crop circles in the European countryside and burned money publicly) split in 1992, deleting their entire back-catalog. Other titles mentioned: Chill Out.
24. Moby, Everything Is Wrong (1995). Señor Moby's albums have always been a bit schizophrenic and his 1995 masterpiece, Everything Is Wrong, is no exception. Once again, electronica's pop ambassador calls on a multitude of sounds and a bevy of guest vocalists but this time it's strung cohesively with techno-operatic ambition. From the quiet urgency of the album's opening track, "Hymn," to the aggressive tech-rock of "All That I Need Is to Be Loved" and "What Love" (it's no coincidence that many '80s metalheads turned to techno in the '90s), it's clear nothing was right in Moby's world. It's not until rave anthems like "Feeling So Real" and the piano-driven "Everytime You Touch Me" that he pumps up the celebratory BPMs. The album's various textures are impeccably pieced together—elemental chord progressions are offset by Moby's pristine production and flawless pacing. While Ambient pieces like "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters" have become Moby's trademark, "First Cool Hive" is the only track on Everything Is Wrong that directly hints at the cool, collected soul of his 1999 breakthrough, Play.
23. Black Dog Productions, Bytes (1992). Black Dog Productions's Bytes, the third installment in Warp Records's Artificial Intelligence series, was a watershed in what has become known in the U.K. as IDM or "intelligent techno." The album is a headphone-friendly collection of tracks by Andy Turner, Ed Handley, and Ken Downie (a trio of producers who have taken on various incarnations over the years, including Plaid, Balil and Xeper), most noteworthy for its elaborate beat structures and rhythms. The odd time signatures of tracks like "Yamemm" and "Focus Mel" are offset by splashes of rich harmonic tones and striking, alpine melodies. Influenced by early Detroit techno artists like Derrick May, Black Dog, in turn, went on to stimulate later waves of electronic music in Detroit as well as European ambient and hardcore techno.
22. Boards of Canada, Music Has the Right to Children (1998). Nestled somewhere in between the warm hues of 1970s flocked wallpaper and the sleek electronic sheen of the future lies Boards of Canada's Music Has the Right to Children. The warm patter of "Open the Light" and the stuttering hip-hop beats and lulling synth chords of tracks like "Telephastic Workshop" are juxtaposed with short vignettes like "The Color of the Fire," a minimalist composition not unlike Brian Eno's Music for Airports. A child's voice is sampled, disfigured and looped to form a creepy, somewhat detached, one-sided conversation. The avant garde Children is invariably connected with nature, from the languid introduction "Wildlife Analysis" to the distorted seagull caws of the album's final track, "Happy Cycling." Happy cycling indeed—depending on your drug of choice.
21. Tricky, Maxinquaye (1995). Tricky's lascivious solo debut, Maxinquaye, stands alongside Massive Attack's Blue Lines, and Portishead's Dummy as one of the most influential trip-hop albums of the '90s. Maxinquaye takes the glistening electronic soul of Blue Lines and smothers it in far-grittier textures, exploring the destructive nature of love ("Now I could just kill a man," he says on "Suffocated Love") and sin (the devious "Abbaon Fat Tracks"). Tricky's vocals play back and forth with those of singer Martine, whose hypnotic, slippery phrasing opens the album on the sexy "Overcome." Samples abound, of course, from Smashing Pumpkins (on the appropriately-titled "Pumpkin," a moody track featuring Alison Goldfrapp) and Issac Hayes ("Hell Is Around the Corner") to snippets from films like Bladerunner and Rapture. If there was ever any doubt about the sonic lineage between hip-hop and trip-hop, "Aftermath" and "Brand New You're Retro" blur the lines to the point of undeniable extraction. These are beats Timbaland and Dre have only dreamt of.
20. Depeche Mode, Music for the Masses (1987). In the 1980s, the influence of Kraftwerk and New Wave took the shape of radio-friendly post-punk synth-pop like Depeche Mode. In 1987, the band released Music for the Masses, an album that revealed a darker side of the movement. The album is steeped in high drama, each track spilling into the next like a pop-rock opera. From the sampled radio broadcast of "To Have and to Hold" to the chamber choirs of "Sacred" and "Pimpf," voices play an integral role in the album's theatrical aura. With its themes of repentance and redemption, the album wasn't exactly "for the masses," but it was a commercial and critical landmark for the band, spawning hits like "Strangelove," a track that is home to classic Martin Gore lyrics ("Pain, will you return it/I won't say it again") and David Gahan's timeless vocal. Other titles mentioned: Black Celebration, Speak & Spell.
19. Leftfield, Leftism (1995). One of the first techno crossover acts, Leftfield's music has been a pop-culture staple since the English duo's 1995 debut, the apocalyptic Leftism. (Most recently, the trance anthem "Song of Life" was used in the film Tomb Raider.) From the tribal dub of its opening track, "Release the Pressure," to the ambient "Melt," Leftism eschews mainstream categorization and manages to reside in the leftfield of almost all the electronic genres it propagates. Leftfield's happy home, though, is the progressive house of tracks like the epic "Afro-Left," "Black Flute" and the tribal "Space Shanty." The now-disbanded Leftfield's biggest crossover success came with the punk-techno track "Open Up," featuring ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon.
18. Daft Punk, Homework (1997). Well-versed in Chicago house and Detroit techno and taking a nod from disco maven Giorgio Moroder, Parisian duo Daft Punk (DJs Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter) helped blaze a trail for French techno with their 1997 debut, Homework. Led by hits like the unrelenting "Da Funk" and the dizzying "Around the World," the album is a savory mix of borderline-cheesy filtered loops and super-simple drum machine beats and basslines. The duo's influences are revealed sonically ("Oh Yeah" references Kraftwerk) and literally (everyone from Brian Wilson to Dr. Dre are name-dropped on the aptly-titled retro feast "Teachers"). While a few tracks are more daft than deft ("Rollin' & Scratchin'" is a rather soulless thumper), the crunchy guitar licks of the aquatic "Fresh," and the sampled vocals and horny horns of "High Fidelity" prove that more recent groundbreakers like the Avalanches could never exist without Da Funk.
17. 808 State, Utd. State 90 (1990).By the time the residual sweet swirl of disco and the harder edge of Chicago house had dribbled its way into England via New York and Europe's booming rave scene, acid house was born. At a record shop somewhere in Manchester, a group of future acid house pioneers (Martin Price, Graham Massey, and Gerald Simpson) formed 808 State. The group's first domestic release, Utd. State 90, was a drastically revised version of their 1989 album 90. The hit "Pacific" (here in three incarnations) is the album's standout track, its slinky, synthesized sax and tropical chirps laid on a bed of percussive electronic beats. The album shifts moods quickly yet seamlessly, from the poppy, lyric-driven "Magical Dream" to the industrial edge of "Kinky National" and the epic grind of "Cübik." Utd. State 90 even enters Ambient territory with "Sunrise," a track in which 808's impact on artists like Moby is beyond palpable.
16. The Art of Noise, Who's Afraid Of? (1984). As subtly influential as Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express, the Art of Noise's Who's Afraid Of? is a brash blend of experimental rock and new wave that was way ahead of its time. With its staccato beats, erratic vocal samples and found sounds, the album is at times irksome but always groundbreaking. The proto-political "A Time for Fear (Who's Afraid)" kicks things off with portions of broadcasts from the U.S. invasion of Grenada, building to crunchy programmed beats and a minimalist sub-bass that most certainly informed the likes of future pioneers like Björk and Tricky. The album's biggest hits, "Close (To the Edit)" and "Moments In Love," are about as dissimilar as can be; "Close" is a signpost of the era, replete with vintage '80s samples, car engines and the oft-sampled vocal "hey!" while "Moments In Time" is utterly (and ironically) timeless. The ten minute-plus epic is to electronica what Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" is to Baroque. The album ends with a trio of off-kilter experiments including the organ-imbued "Momento."
15. Global Communication, 76:14 (1994). Of all popular genres, electronica has always been one of the more globally conscious, crossing oceans and transcending cultural boundaries in a wordless communication of rhythm and melody. Influenced by Detroit techno, early Tangerine Dream and Eno's Ambient, Global Communication's 76:14 became one of several universally celebrated Ambient house records. Though it was released in Europe at the height of the ambient techno movement in 1994 and later garnered critical acclaim in the U.S. when it was distributed in 1997, the album's 10 tracks (titled by number to avoid "pre-defining images") were recorded as early as 1991. Each track is its own spacey symphony, etched with ticking clocks, soft piano lines, and tidal white noise not unlike that on the Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. Now considered a neo-classic, 76:14 samples nine different languages throughout, making it a truly global communication.