Pitchfork has published a list of “The 50 Best IDM Albums of All Time.” I participated in the voting, and wrote up three of the albums: Mira Calix’s One on One, which came it at 47; Plaid’s Not for Threes, 36; and Aphex Twin’s … I Care Because You Do, 13. Aphex Twin also topped the list, with Selected Ambient Works 85-92 coming in at number 1. These are my first Pitchfork bylines, though I’ve been written about on the site twice: Mark Richardson generously interviewed me about my Aphex Twin Selected Ambient Works Volume II book, and my book was included in the site’s list of the 33 best books in the 33 1/3 series, as compiled by Stephen M. Deusner. I can’t link directly to the individual “IDM 50” reviews, but the Calix is on the first page, the Plaid on the second page, and the Aphex Twin on the penultimate page.
IDM is shorthand for “intelligent dance music,” and it played an influential role in my life. It’s on the IDM discussion boards that I made friends and participated during the early, proto-Internet 1990s in discussion of music that the music press often was unaware of, and I say that as someone who was at the time a full-time employee of the music press, working as an editor at Pulse! magazine, published by Tower Records. (It’s on an IDM discussion board that Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II’s tracks got their titles, as I recount in my book.)
I was delighted to be asked by Pitchfork to participate, and I should also note that I was conflicted. For one thing, I don’t give much credence to genre. Genre was a somewhat useful tool in the age of brick and mortar record stores, back when someone had to decide where to put Nina Simone (pop, jazz, jazz vocals, oldies). In our hypertextual present, genre is at best a flavor, one among many. A recording today can and should be tagged: situated at the nexus of an associative Venn diagram, not stuck in a genre box. Boxhead Ensemble’s Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks Its Back is country and it is ambient; Mason Bates’ The B-Sides is classical and it is electronic. I can count on one hand the number of musicians outside of hip-hop I’ve interviewed who expressed firm alignment with any specific genre. We should follow the musicians’ lead. I’m also not a big list-maker. I know people who make lists of everything, favorite films and favorite books and so forth, but that’s just not how my brain works. All of which said, it’s not a coincidence that after several years of not feeling inclined to produce top 10 lists at the end of the year I suddenly this past December made several such lists. It was, indeed, my participation in the email discussion for the Pitchfork IDM list that convinced me that, in essence, if you don’t make lists, someone else will.
The way the Pitchfork process worked was that a bunch of invited critics were asked to help flesh out a sizable collection IDM albums for consideration. We discussed these via email. Then we filled out our own ballots, selecting a subset of the complete set (we were allowed to list up to 50 albums, and mine felt complete at 33). Math and the Pitchfork editors’ inclinations produced the final 50.
I think my ballot was probably among the more conservative submitted. One wise participant described IDM as more of a period than a genre. After I flirted with a far wider aesthetic net, certain constraints got me to 33 entries. I stuck in the end to a working definition I posted to the discussion list: IDM: A genre of electronic music that foregrounds beats in the exploration of the arrhythmic, abstract potential of hardware and software, often but not exclusively tools originally designed with dance music in mind. Touchstones include chaos, entropy, digital decay, and technological intentionality.
As I thought through the material, I kept coming back around to the distinction between “bebop” and “hard bop,” between music that was explicitly challenging to its audience, and music that built on the codified understanding of bebop and then layered in something more soulful, more r&b, more, for lack of a better word, “pop.” A “best bebop” list isn’t going to include hard bop, even hard bop by people who earlier on recorded bebop, and my “best IDM” list didn’t include whatever the equivalent of “IDM hard bop” is, or “IDM pop” for that matter. That explains in part the absence of more contemporary acts.
In addition, there were a lot of albums tossed around that sound like techno or dub (or dub techno, or minimal techno) or microsound to me. If it sounded prominently and consistently like those, all I could think was, “Well if there’s going to be a best techno or best dub or best microsound list someday, why include this here?” Same for trip-hop, and for (instrumental) hip-hop. I’d love to have included early Kit Clayton, but in the end it sounds like great dub techno to me, as does so much Monolake, and even a lot of Sun Electric for that matter. I love Prefuse 73, but he’s somewhere in the post-trip-hop/proto-EDM realm, like Flying Lotus, with a lot of instrumental hip-hop in there. Even Prefuse’s One Word Extinguisher doesn’t strike me as IDM. (Note that I was considerably outvoted: Both One Word Extinguisher and Flying Lotus’ Los Angeles made the final top 50.)
As the discussion proceeded, we all added records to the pool. Among others I added Mouse on Mars’ Iaora Tahiti, Bedouin Ascent’s Science, Art, and Ritual, Matmos’ Matmos, Blectum from Blechdom’s’ De Snaunted Haus, Bogdan Raczynski’s Boku Mo Wakaran, and Greg Davis’ Arbor. I’m disappointed in particular that Arbor didn’t make the final top 50.
There was a lot of music on the collective list — some of which made the final list — that I love, including records that effectively shaped the course of my life, in particular Wagon Christ’s Throbbing Pouch (truly a landmark recording), but that I didn’t include in my ballot because they lack the chaos and entropy that I see as inherent in IDM (the slurry quality of Throbbing Pouch has the entropy, but there’s zero chaos). I mean, if I included Throbbing Pouch, then why not Kid Koala, and Funki Porcini, and DJ Krush, and Pierre Bastien? They’re all of a piece, along with Prefuse 73 and Flying Lotus: politely swaggery, introspectively soulful, hip-hop-informed, cautiously dramatic. They’re funky wallflower music. But they’re not, to my narrow mind, IDM.
Instrumental hip-hop was a subject of discussion. Why not include the more experimental realms of that beatcraft, the logic went. I was thinking about the production of some earlier Destiny’s Child singles, the scattershot (in a good way) beats in particular of “Say My Name” and, syncopation heaven, “Bills Bills Bills.” I wasn’t sure how to fold into the IDM list-making the producers largely associated with hip-hop and r&b whom I’ve followed (er, collected) for their rhythmic invention (the 45 King, Just Blaze, Alchemist, Kev Brown, and of course Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Neptunes, DJ Muggs, and so forth). Various realms of more dance-oriented electronic music also popped up, and when someone mentioned Larry Heard’s Alien I responded that it feels more Tangerine Dreamy when it ventures out. I was also not enticed to include Björk’s Vespertine because of the remarkable scope of the album. There’s a lot of non-IDM on Vespertine, like “Undo” and “Sun in My Mouth,” among others. (And I declined as a guy who had an e.e. cummings quote in the high school yearbook.) I was disinclined to include Photek in the mix, as to me it’s simply great drum’n’bass — and in fact to think of it as IDM is to, in essence, accept drum’n’bass as being not particularly explorative. Likewise, I was utterly flummoxed on how to characterize Amon Tobin, very much to his credit, though tellingly he didn’t make the final 50.
While doing research for the project, I looked back on my recent employment of the term and recognized that I often say “IDM-ish,” seeing it as a flavor, not a constraint, or use it to characterize an earlier period in music production. In any case, the discussion ended, the ballots have been cast, and the full list is at pitchfork.com. The process was highly enjoyable, and I hope people enjoy the result.
This first appeared, in slightly different form (e.g., no streaming videos), in the January 24, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.