How 1995 became the year dance music albums came of age
In 1995, years before the rise of Coachella, Lollapalooza was the American festival to beat. Founded in 1991 by Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, the multi-city roadshow quickly became a cutting-edge summer institution.
Lollapalooza’s 1995 lineup featured alt-rock royalty like Sonic Youth, Pavement and The Jesus Lizard alongside artists as diverse as Beck, Cypress Hill, Sinead O’Connor and Hole. For all its genre-hopping, however, the festival has largely missed a sound close to its founder’s heart: electronic music. Even Moby, the former punk and only raver on the bill, arrived with a guitar and his best rock growl.
Across the Atlantic, the iconic British Glastonbury festival takes another look at 1995: in its universe, electronic music is on the rise. For the first time in Glastonbury’s 25-year history, the festival featured a tent dance, which featured trip-hop collective Massive Attack alongside local DJs Carl Cox, Spooky and Darren Emerson.
Elsewhere, from the main stage to the Jazz World stage, Glastonbury has lined up the best and brightest in British electronic music: The Prodigy, Portishead, Tricky, Goldie and Orbital among them. This weekend in June, a musical movement coalesced on a farm in the English countryside.
A year before, The Prodigy’s Music for the Forsaken Generation lit the fuse on the impetus to come. Released in July 1994, the album was an immediate outlier in a golden age of alternative rock. Soundgarden, Green Day, Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails were prominent in the US, while in the UK Blur’s Parklife and Oasis’ Definitely maybe fought for Britpop supremacy. Liam Howlett, the head beatmaker of The Prodigy, was from another world. Music for the Forsaken Generation cut through the grit and aggression of punk rock with the ecstatic highs of delirium, producing indelible anthems like “Their Law” and “No Good (Start The Dance)”. The album topped the charts in the UK, but it failed to break through in the US.
The following year, a diverse cast of newcomers were ready to make their mark. Not all fit the fast and furious mold of The Prodigy. The crop of albums released in 1995, including several notable debuts, showcased the many moods, textures and possibilities of electronic music. The year brought legitimacy and studio polish to the format, while sparking an era of intense, analog live shows.
Released in January 1995, Leftfield’s Leftism reaches a more transcendent plane than the rave anthems of the day. “At the time, a lot of people thought dance music was this fake thing,” Neil Barnes, one half of the duo, alongside Paul Daley, told The Guardian in 2017.[Leftism] came out in the middle of Britpop, which we didn’t really understand.”
Leftfield called on surprising voices, including Toni Halliday of alternative rock band Curve and Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon, to challenge the demarcation of dance music. While the album was nominally “progressive house”, its songs channeled London thrum through dub, reggae and pop hooks. More than two decades later, Leftism remains exciting true to its time and place.
Across the country, from Liam Howlett’s Essex studio, Bristol-based Massive Attack had their own creations about the left behind generation. Where The Prodigy raged, Massive Attack bubbled. Like Leftfield LeftismMassive attack blue lines (1991) and protection (1994) drew inspiration from dub, reggae and soul, arriving not at house music, but at the slow creep of Bristol’s signature trip-hop sound. protection collaborator Tricky broke through in 1995 with his own trip-hop masterpiece, Maxinquaye; its opening, “Overcome”, is an alternate version of protection cut “Karmacome”. Björk, then recently transplanted to the 90s in the UK from Iceland, also enlisted Bristol connections for her surprising second album, To post (1995).
Read: ‘Post’ at 25: How Björk brought her ageless sophomore album to life
Meanwhile, in London, mouth-driving DJ/producer Goldie has emerged from basement clubs with a fully realized debut album. Released in July 1995, Timeless illustrated the drum & bass genre in LP form, ranging from deep, sonic atmospheres to headlong deployments in the jungle. Bold to the core, Goldie showcased her featured single, “Inner City Life,” in a 21-minute opener. (The opening of his next album, 1998 Return of Saturnzlasts one hour.) Founded by the voices of the late Diane Charlemagne, Timeless brought big screen validation to an underground culture. Recognized as a key moment in dance music history by The Guardian, the album became a surprise Top 10 hit in the UK.”Timeless was a fucking hot shot,” the producer told Computer Music in 2017. “There were ten years of my life in that album.”
The mid-90s also introduced one of the dominant dance headliners of the next 25 years, sharing a level with The Prodigy and two French upstarts called Daft Punk, that is if Daft Punk played the festival game.
After a few releases as The Dust Brothers, including the propelling steamrollers “Chemical Beats” and “Song To The Siren”, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons became The Chemical Brothers with 1995’s Leave the dust of the planet. (The Dust Brothers name was already owned by a songwriting/production team in Los Angeles.)
Leave the dust of the planet does not contain any of the reservations that one would expect from a first album. From the sordid chug of opener “Leave Home”, it’s a dance record with classic rock weight. Even the hippie cover, taken from a 1970s fashion photoshoot, hints at a world beyond the rave. (An early fan favourite, Leave the dust of the planet set the stage for the real breakout of the 1997s Dig your own holewhich featured the band’s career-defining single, “Block Rockin’ Beats”.)
Basically, “Chemical Beats” and “Song To The Siren” put The Chemical Brothers on the lineup alongside fellow gear geeks Underworld, Leftfield, and Orbital. Each act brought a version of their studio gear to the stage, working the synthesizers, drum machines and mixing consoles under cover of darkness.
Along with this period of live innovation came the superstar DJ phenomenon, ushered in by iconic mix albums like those of Sasha & Digweed. North exposure (1996) and Paul Oakenfold Tranceport (1998). A new rank of mostly British and male DJs imposed astronomical fees, foreshadowing the excesses of the American EDM boom more than a decade later. As the 2000s approached, DJs and living artists forged a sometimes unequal alliance. Fast forward to Miami’s massive ultra dance Ultra Music Festival in the 2010s: DJs represented the main stage status quo, with live acts neatly presented in their own amphitheater.
In the pre-Facebook era of the mid-’90s, dance stars turned to magazines to let off steam or get in some serious mischief. Aphex Twin, who released their third tonic album, …I care because you do, in 1995, amused himself by derailing the investigators with fanciful answers. Goldie took the opposite approach, speaking endlessly without a filter. Ed Simons of the Chemical Brothers, meanwhile, got straight to the point.
“I’m amazed at the low expectations that have always centered on dance music,” Simons told Muzik Magazine in 1995. In the same interview, he lashed out at criticism that his music lacked soul: “Not everyone wants to be like Portishead, making music for people to put on when they have little dinner parties.” (Later, in a 1997 article, Björk poked fun at America’s adoption of the Chemical Brothers as electronic saviors: “The Chemical Brothers are hard rock!”)
In the United States, the best-selling album of 1995 was Hootie & The Blowfish’s Cracked rear viewin front of Mariah Carey’s Dream2Pac me against the world and The Lion King soundtrack.
by Alanis Morissette Little shredded pill won big at the 1996 GRAMMYs, winning album of the year. For now, the dance numbers were watching the party from the children’s table. (The GRAMMYS would later introduce the Best Dance Recording category in 1998.)
By 1997, dance music’s underdog reputation was beginning to change, thanks in large part to the groundbreaking series of albums two years prior. The Prodigy, previously overlooked in the United States, has sparked a bidding war between labels for its third album, The fat of the earth; Madonna’s boutique imprint, Maverick Records, won out. Powered by a polished big beat sound and the introduction of livewire hype man Keith Flint, The fat of the earth went to No. 1 in the US. That year, the floodgates opened, delivering Daft Punk’s HomeworkThe Chemical Brothers’ Dig your own hole and still scary from Aphex Twin come see daddy EP.
Lollapalooza’s 1997 lineup, in turn, was very different from its 1995 run. This time, founder Perry Farrell brought electronic music to the fore. The change had mixed results: overall attendance was down, The Prodigy protested venue choices, Orbital and fellow UK beatmakers The Orb had to follow Tool, and Tricky felt awry sharing a main stage with Korn. But Lollapalooza’s bet marked changing times.
Coachella debuted in 1999 with The Chemical Brothers, Underworld and Moby among the headliners. Like Glastonbury before it, the new desert festival even had a dedicated dance tent: the Sahara stage. Finally, the 1995 underdog genre had entered the spotlight.
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