1990s UK Dance Music

While the arbitrary boundaries of decades are rarely as cohesive as music writers wish, it’s safe enough to state that the 1990s were a remarkably creative period for electronic and dance music in the UK. At the end of the 80s, dance music subgenres like trip hop, jungle, drum & bass, IDM, speed garage, UK garage, big beat, nu skool breaks, broken beat, nu disco and dubstep simply didn’t exist; and ten years later, they did. Equally, house music’s magic had proved so popular and successful that over the course of the decade that it sprouted a number of prefix-subgenres — progressive, hard, uplifting, tech and so on — becoming way more globally successful than its US originators could ever have imagined in the process. 

Plenty of this musical innovation came from the UK, much of it taking place away from the traditional music industry. Unlike rock or pop which tended to be innovated by bands and artists, new electronic and club genres were often DJ-led, coalescing on dance floors via DJ selections; the emergence of jungle from Fabio & Grooveriders’ experimental DJ sets at their late 80s/early 90s club residency Rage is a great example of how DJs can shape new genres. 

However, once the traditional music industry recognised the commercial potential of UK underground dance music, major labels began to invest in album projects, and there were plenty of key UK electronic and dance music albums that were influential in creating and defining new genres and subgenres. Some traced the development of new sounds or established the boundaries and identity of a new style: the 90s albums of Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky for example codified the funereal tempo and moody, introspective, paranoid mood of trip hop, while the mid-90s albums from Goldie, Roni Size Reprazent and 4Hero set out three distinctly different approaches to drum & bass. Other UK artists such as The Sabres of Paradise, Saint Etienne or Leftfield used their albums to push out in multiple musical directions, integrating other styles like electro, lounge/easy listening or dub into their sound, and sowing the seeds for potential new sub-genres.

UK electronic and dance music albums of the period all had to engage with the same conundrum: would the structural elements that make club music like house, rave or techno so effective at facilitating dance — lengthy, uneventful intros and outros, long, repetitive vamps where ‘not much happens,’ abstract outré production values, the lack of traditional song structures and often the absence of any lyrics at all –- work outside of the club/rave environment, and translate to home listening and the album format? 

Some electronic music producers ignored the conundrum completely, using their albums to simply gather together their club tracks. Others however, chose to use the sonic vocabulary of rave/techno/house/hip hop to create something other than straight-up club tracks, or to develop and distil their sound via production experimentation, pushing the studio machines beyond their limits to create new techniques and styles. This experimentation was in part facilitated by the appearance of samplers that home producers could afford. The sampler was a revolutionising technology, enabling the emulation of any instrument, and the ability to ‘borrow’, reference, rework or steal any part from any piece of the entire history of recorded music for new creative purposes. Samplers also came with functionality that could be used and misused to maul and mutate sampled source material beyond recognition and in ways that could define entire genres, like the distinctive ultra-edited, intricate drum sound on Goldie’s Timeless title track. It’s instantly synonymous with mid-90s drum & bass and was created, via Goldie’s vision, producer Rob Playford’s technical prowess, and an Akai sampler, from an eight-second snippet from the Incredible Bongo Band’s 1973 version of Apache

The flowering of musical experimentation and accompanying rapid growth of genres and subgenres in the 90s UK dance scene was also helped by other factors too, not least the growing affordability and increased functionality of other electronic instruments like drum machines, synthesisers and home computers that could run music software. Also, much of the UK’s underground electronic music in the 90s emerged from close-knit communities of studios, record shops, clubs, raves, vinyl-cutting plants and radio stations (see hardcore rave, jungle, drum & bass, UK garage, dubstep, progressive house and tech house for just a few examples), and this often generated a healthy level of artistic competition between peers too. And the music was often consumed by dancers using mind-altering substances, a fact which also encouraged the production of more experimental, outré, extreme, intense or immoderate music. 

The net result was a frenetic and fecund decade of electronic/dance music invention, production experimentation and studio adventurism. For club-derived music, the 1990s were defined by genre fragmentation and hybridity, and the continual creation of fresh, local niche scenes and new, world-dominating genres, the roots and development of which can be heard in some of these albums.

Foxbase Alpha cover

The first album from UK trio Saint Etienne was released at the height of acid house/rave in the UK and the album highlight, their dark dubby cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” becoming a rave/Balearic anthem. Foxbase Alpha is a rich, magpie-approach selection of songs that blended house beats, funk/hip hop drum breaks and liberal sampling, with a sixties easy/lounge/Bacharach-esque pop sensibility, resulting in a very British, sweet, eclectic and idiosyncratic album. House-ish vocal club tracks, dreamy pop, some epic semi-ambient-gaze for good measure, along with gorgeous 60s pastiches like the second album highlight, their hit single “Nothing Can Stop Us,” all add up to a charming and engaging debut.

Electribal Memories cover

In contrast to the sample-based, cut & paste, funky-drum-loop approach of many dance and electronic albums released in 1990, UK band Electribe 101 with Berlin-born lead singer Billie Ray Martin put out this sleek, slick, sophisticated synth-based collection of precisely arranged house and electronic torch songs, all defined by Martin’s instantly recognisable and always seemingly doleful vocals. There’s a memorising quality to the combination of Martins’ vocals and the clean, efficient, restrained synth and drum machine tracks, Electrical Memories continually striking a not unpleasant mood of melancholy and detached loneliness, making for a haunting electronic soul album.

Timeless cover

With substantial contributions from engineer/producer Rob Playford, 4Hero’s Dego and Marc Marc and vocalist Dianne Charlemagne, Goldie’s Timeless album arrived in 1995. A mix of dramatic, futurist drum & bass and d&b-adjacent soul/electronica, sonically it’s an incredibly rich and complex album full of extreme audio juxtapositions: the softest, creamiest of synth washes matched to the deepest, rawest low-frequency basslines, smooth soul vocals and euphoric melodies on top of angular, needle-sharp, tungsten-clad beats. Bold, cocky even — it’s called Timeless, and you could argue that with a twenty-minute opening track and three other tracks coming in over ten minutes, it’s a little overindulgent — but it’s good enough in terms of songwriting, production and sheer sonic impressiveness to justify its sprawling length.

dubnobasswithmyheadman cover

This was Underworld’s first album with DJ Darren Emmerson on board and his influence can heard in the mostly house and techno that make up dubnobasswithmyheadman. They chose to address the how-do-you-make-club-music-work-in-the-album-format question by embracing the relentless looping nature of techno while ensuring that their tracks mutated, developed and unfurled in all sorts of interesting ways. Their tripped-out synths, billowing chord pads, thudding kick drums and layers of regimented percussion are all arranged to build, peak, plateau and progress the music, while Karl Hyde’s steam of conscious lyrics provide a surreal and engaging human element. Three of the nine tracks step outside the 4/4 techno thud: the drifty, twangy-guitar downtempo Tongue, moody weirdtronica River of Bass and sprightly trip hop-ish M.E., providing slowed down, alternate versions of Underworld’s singular musical vision.

Good 4 We cover

Released on the influential UK label Acid Jazz, from the unique drummer count-in on the first track Good Lover, (who counts the band in on 5?!), Good 4 We is a confident and distinctive UK soul/club album from 1992. Around half the tracks are in the classic early-90s, mid-tempo, funky drum loop, Soul II Soul style, with soft dreamy pads, smooth keys and classy piano chords behind Sarah Anne Webb’s creamy rich vocals. The other half is either songs that integrate the 4/4 house beat that was ascendant at the time into the D Influence soul sound - Good Lover remains a sophisticated UK club classic, No Illusions tapped into the rave euphoria of Italian piano house brilliantly, and Sweetest Thing upped the tempo into shimmering disco-house territory — and a pair of percolating instrumentals, the high energy jazz funk “Instantly” and abstract funk club track “The Classic.”

Sabresonic cover

The Sabres of Paradise (UK DJ Andrew Weatherall and musicians Jagz Kooner and Gary Burns) 1993 debut is an album of haunted techno, gothic dub and leftfield electro, edgy, anxious and intense. So it’s a little ironic that the most loved and remembered track from a generally heavy and imposing album is the beatifically joyful and perenially popular Smokebelch II - Beatless Mix. The other eight tracks present an uneasy and eerie version of techno, with rattling, skeletal percussion on top of distorted thudding kicks, creeping metallic synths and unsettling soundscapes. Three churning, chugging, dub-flavoured fear-step tunes form the centre of the album, half an hour of scuttling noises, metallic synth washes, Halloween drones, shadowy FX and brooding bass. Still sounds imposing three decades on.

New Forms cover

A classic Mercury Music Prize-winning album and near-perfect moment in UK club history, New Forms is the sound of a Britsh club genre hitting the mainstream in raw form, with not one compromise made to commercial considerations. Drum & bass is, obviously, all about the drums, and Size chose to base his future-space-jazz tracks around ultra-tough, supa-funky, rolling, relentless programmed drum breaks so good they almost function as hooks. He also included jazz elements, in particular a highly distinctive double bass sound, an instrument from an entirely different era, repurposed to become part of his high-speed tech-funk. There’s lots of space in this album, both in the feel of the futurist and abstract soundscapes that sit behind the beats but also in the arrangements themselves, the basslines often effortlessly carrying the tracks with minimal notes. Sparse, clean, tight; deadly.

The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld cover

Released in spring 1991, UK duo The Orb’s Adventures… was one of the first albums of the post-acid house revolution that took the sounds, beats and atmosphere of house and techno and began using them to mould new sub-genres. Kicking off with the dreamy downtempo early chill-out classic Little Fluffy Clouds, the album is made up of techno-ish synths and a mix of sampled funk/hip hop and drum machine rhythms, decorated by field recordings, found sounds and all sorts of sampling trickery. Tracks like Supernova At The… and Outlands eventually, via elongated psychedelic and atmospheric intros unfold into proto-trip hop, Perpetual Dawn is chunky dub-flavoured house, while Back Side of The Moon and Spanish Castles are (virtually) beatless ambient pieces. Its influence was a broadening of the possibilities of electronic music, demonstrating an introspective, immersive and tranquil alternative to rave and techno’s intensity and dance floor dynamism.

Walking Wounded cover

Everything but the Girl’s ‘electric’ album, 1996’s Walking Wounded, was a successful fusion of electronic music and high-quality pop songwriting, delivered by a singer gifted with a beautiful voice as well as a talent for clever/wry/heart-wrenching lyrics. The sequenced basslines, electronic beats, sampled loops and synth programming of club genres like house, drum & bass and trip hop/downtempo replaced EBTG’s more traditional instrumentation and style, giving their songs a futurist sheen and propulsive drive. The contrast between Thorn’s soft, mournful, restrained vocals, the aches of heartbreak revealed in every tiny crack in her contralto, and the backdrop of digital beats and synthetic instrumentation achieved a sophisticated sense of late-night intimacy, a simmering, nocturnal low-level intensity that hangs over the whole album.

Leftism cover

The 1994 debut from club pioneers Leftfield was a great example of a UK 90s electronic music album that provided a ‘traditional’ album listening experience with all the variations in style, mood and tempo that might involve, without making any compromise to their sound. The detailed, intense house, techno, dub, trip hop and electronica of Leftism sounds incredibly tough; diamond-hard beats, metallic synth lines, iron-clad bass, immovable rhythms, unstoppable grooves, its forward momentum generated by sheer audio weight. And it has a genuinely cohesive musical character, the chords, melodies, arrangement, production and engineering, the overall sound is just very Leftfield. Full frequency, heavy-weight, armour-plated electronic music.

Selected Ambient Works 85-92 cover

Not really an ambient album by today’s criteria as all the tracks have some kind of percussion, SAWs is a collection of hazy, dreamy, emotive techno and break tracks. It was famously recorded onto cassette, the technical limitations of the format — hiss, gentle distortion and tape compression — lending the album a murky and emotive atmosphere that artists have been emulating ever since. It was notable at the time for its warm and soothing aesthetic which was in clear contrast to the bombast of contemporary hardcore rave, the twisted intensity of acid house or the uncompromising thud of techno. SAW drew on those genres but put them through a post-rave comedown soft focus filter, downplaying the drums and dynamic drive, and exploring gentler, introspective moods and emotions and still retains substantial emotional impact all these years later.

Two Pages cover

Spiritual jazz, symphonic soul, fusion, space funk, hip hop and drum & bass all meet on this classic late 90s Mercury Music Prize-nominated double album from UK production pioneers Marc Mac and Dego in their 4Hero guise. The musical touchstones here are the orchestrated soul music of Norman Whitfield and Charles Stepney, and the sophisticated jazz funk of the Mizell Brothers, Lonnie Liston Smith and Roy Ayers, and Two Pages is clearly in that lineage, expertly taking live jazz soul instrumentation and orchestration to some wonderfully new and exciting musical places. The final section of the album is more abstract including a couple of dark, dance floor-targetted drum & bass tracks complete with discordant synths, sci-fi FX and intricate, rolling, stuttering metallic drum breaks. Overall Two Pages is a rarified, purist album, a new vision of drum & bass, superbly executed.

Tales of the Unexpected cover

An album of Detroit-style techno from UK producer/DJ Dave Angel on his 1995 debut, concentrating on the more meditative, melodic and jazzy end of the genre, Tales of The Unexpected is a strong mix of smooth, propulsive, hi-tech 4/4 and introspective, downtempo android-soul. The mood is mostly warm and inviting, theres’s not a lot of rawness, rough edges or jarring, atonal sounds, this is techno that is smooth, sleek and soulful with genuine musicality. The final quarter of the album mimics the dynamics of a DJ set, toughening up with two intense, darker, 4 am belters before finishing on a pair of twinkling and pretty down-tempo tech-jazz tunes. Overlooked, quality UK techno.

Duende cover

Released in summer 1998, a decade since acid house’s ‘Second Summer of Love,’ UK electronic duo A Man Called Adam’s second album Duende was a delightful and accomplished collection of electronic and club/club adjacent songs. The genres are house, disco and downtempo; album opener Easter Song is 20th-century English-electronic-folk, Oaktown is downtempo synth-funk, Bite The Pillow is cheery glitter-ball disco-house, All My Favourite People (Stay With Me) is a melancholy broken-break club track, Wouldn’t She is sultry space-R’n’B — but AMCA continually bring an inventiveness and originality to their productions that enriches their work. You get the sense that they’ve never used a sample pack or a synth pre-set in their career, a technique that means 25 years after its release, Duende really hasn’t dated that much: quality lasts.

Music Has the Right to Children cover

The initial album from Scottish duo BofC from 1998 used vintage synths, field recordings and found sound, deliberate degrading of their sound sources, with an audio palette that mixed and matched elements of hip hop, trip hop, library music, ambient and psychedelia to create an album infused with a strange sense of unfocused musical nostalgia. Using parts of dance music — a filtered drum loop, a distorted kick drum pattern, a rave-redolent synth — to create music that isn’t particularly danceable, the overall mood switches between faint unease and an agreeable innocence. The gentle melodies, soft touch, gauzy, frayed sampling style and sense of innocence and nostalgia in Music has… have proved very influential in the decades since its release and it remains a weirdly comforting listen.

Shfl