Monday Mixtape: Electronic Music

    On this week’s Monday Mixtape, Marco Cartolano takes a trip through the history of electronic music. You can listen on Spotify here.


    [“Trans-Europe Express” – Kraftwerk]

    Hello everybody and welcome to Monday Mixtape. Today, I’m going to dive into the world of electronic music. While the use of electronic devices to create music dates back to the 19th century, the technique largely stayed underground until synthesizers and drum machines became more easily accessible in the ‘70s. The German group Kraftwerk emerged from the German rock scene to become pioneers in electronic music. “Trans-Europe Express” showcases the minimalist approach to sequenced music that the group took. The drum machine keeps chugging along to give the track a sense of forward momentum. This evokes the movement of a train, particularly the Trans Europe Express rail system that linked Western and Central Europe. The robotic vocals describe trips across Europe that the rail system allows, including a meeting with Iggy Pop and David Bowie in Germany. This song was a huge influence on early hip-hop – Afrika Bambaataa sampled the catchy synth line in his seminal track “Planet Rock.”

    [“Xtal” – Aphex Twin]

    As electronic music progressed, it splintered into many directions. Some were inspired by the atmospheric elements of ambient music and combined that sound with the rhythmic structures of techno. Richard D. James helped to establish this sound under his pseudonym, Aphex Twin. His album, Selected Ambient Works 85–92 was one of the most important electronic albums of the ‘90s. “Xtal” has the drum machines of techno, but the synthesizers are used for more atmospheric effect. James also takes advantage of innovations in sampling. The female vocal that he samples sounds euphoric and helps sell the chill vibes of the track.

    [“Firestarter” – The Prodigy]

    Other branches of electronic music have no chill. Instead of using drum machines for a hypnotic effect, some DJs cranked up the speed to make them hit hard. The synthesizers also screeched on these rave-friendly tracks. The Prodigy were one of the biggest acts in the big beat subgenre of house and techno that arose in the ‘90s. Their track “Firestarter” adds a punk rock ethos to the sequenced music. Keith Flint’s snarl would not be out of place in a garage punk band, and the track samples guitars from the alt-rock band The Breeders. “Firestarter” is an adrenaline rush that lit up countless raves in the late ‘90s.

    [“Rendez-vous” – Basement Jaxx]

    As electronic music progressed in the ‘90s, some worried that it was becoming too stiff and robotic. British DJ duo Basement Jaxx released their debut album, Remedy, as a cure for what they perceived to be the superficiality of dance music. Remedy is full of bouncy house tracks that don’t just feel programmed on a computer. “Rendez-vous” opens the album and it’s a great introduction to the group’s fun sound. While still fast, the breakbeats don’t sound as pummeling as they do on a Prodigy track. The sample of Latin guitar playing also makes it sound more organic than the typical rave track. The group’s pitch-shifted vocals add layers of melody to the track and stay in the spirit of pure silliness.

    [“Frontier Psychiatrist” – The Avalanches]

    By the 2000s, sampling had become a key aspect of electronic music. A whole subgenre, called plunderphonics, sought to create original music through heavy use of sampling. Australian duo The Avalanches released a landmark plunderphonics album in 2000, Since I Left You. The Avalanches moved away from the heavy beats of ‘90s rave music and looked to the ‘60s for inspiration. Sampling countless tracks, including a comedy routine, “Frontier Psychiatrist” sounds like a weird mix of a western theme, a surf rock track and a surreal infomercial. The track is held together by record scratches and subtle breakbeats.

    [“Loud Places” – Jamie XX ft. Romy]

    For a more conventional electronic track, look to Jamie XX. Jamie Smith gained fame for his remixes and for his work in the band The XX. Smith released his solo electronic debut In Colour in 2015. His bandmate Romy appeared on a standout track, “Loud Places.” The wonky dubstep-style bass is more toned down than the attention grabbing wubs of Skrillex. The piano adds an acoustic sound to the track. Romy sings about trying to fill the void left by an ex. The pitch-shifted vocal sample in the chorus adds to the feeling of despair that’s prevalent in the track.

    [“I Never Dream” – A.A.L.]

    The reason why I decided to create this mixtape came when I heard this track. A.A.L., or Against All Logic is a pseudonym for Chilean-American producer Nicolas Jaar. He released a collection of house tracks that manages to be both funky and awe-inspiring. “I Never Dream’s” drum pattern sounds as hypnotic as any ambient track, but it still has a danceable rhythm. The vocal sample is chopped in such a way that its fragmented nature only makes it more beautiful. “I Never Dream” proves electronic music can move us in a way that many thought would be impossible when sequenced music first became more popular than live instrumentation.

    [Reprise – “I Never Dream”]

    And that’s all for Monday Mixtape. This week’s playlist will be available on Spotify at mondaymixtape. Make sure to subscribe to Monday Mixtape on Apple href="">Podcasts so you get a notification every time we post a new episode. Thank you for taking this trip into electronic music with me. Until next time, this has been Marco Cartolano for NBN Audio.


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