Who could have foreseen The Chemical Brothers still going strong in 2019? Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons are coming up on 30 years of making music together and they’ve weathered a lot over that time period. Humble beginnings mining The Bomb Squad’s production on Public Enemy records as architects of the now-maligned big beat genre. Unlikely zeitgeist riding as major players in both the Britpop scene of the 90s (that they were only tangentially related to) and the electronica wave near the turn of the millennium when hyperbolic American music critics wrongly pegged dance music to be the new sound of rock and roll. A decade spent often critically sandbagged whilst they tried to find their place in a changing pop scene which was slowly discarding them. Successfully making the transition to elder statesmen with reinvigorated music and a live show which reliably headlines festivals in a euphoric synaesthesia that’s among the best out there.
It’s been a wild ride for the Chems and a large yet underdiscussed element of their legend is that they have put out a phenomenal and highly consistent string of albums in their near-three decades together. Even today, it can be rare to find exceptional dance LPs designed to be consumed as complete statements, so imagine what it was like back in 1995 when Exit Planet Dust first showed up on the scene. The genre, the understanding typically goes, is inherently tailored more towards singles which can operate in any context and, whilst the Chems are certainly no slouches when it comes to singles, what really made sceptical music critics sit up and take notice was how their albums worked as albums rather than awkwardly sequenced collections of singles.
You could even argue that Exit Planet Dust, preceded by The Prodigy’s legendary 1994 racket Music for the Jilted Generation, helped legitimise the dance album in the eyes of rock-focused music critics. Ever since that breakthrough, the duo have stretched, expanded, refined, and experimented with their sound in a manner which has not only allowed them to keep up with the times but in the process put out some of the finest dance full-lengths of all-time. And I’m not just talking about those first two records with that assessment, either. At a certain point in this ranking, we’re separating these records by individual degrees rather than feet or car lengths. It’s an excellent discography from block rocking beats to superstar DJs to acid tests to another world to no geography whatsoever. The brothers gonna work it out.
#9] We are the Night
By 2007, every major face of the 90s electronica/dance scene had fallen off their pedestals to some degree and although the Chems dodged the 2000s stumble for the longest time, long enough to make some think they might pull through unscathed after all, that just meant it caught up with a vengeance for We are the Night. In fairness, Night’s flop-status comes from it bravely rejecting rehashing old sounds and instead trying out all new stuff to see what sticks. But much of that experimentation either sounds like blatant trend-chasing (the otherwise enjoyable ‘Do It Again’ is an unrepentant Timbaland bite at a time when Timbo was everywhere) or just plain embarrassing (the justifiably mocked ‘Salmon Dance’ sucks entirely on its own BBC Bitesize music merits even before vocalist Fatlip starts rapping about and to fish). It does feature ‘Saturate,’ an album version of ‘Electronic Battle Weapon 8’ which is one of my favourite songs in the duo’s career, but the record’s few highs are cancelled out by stuff like ‘All Rights Reserved,’ a horrendous crossbreed with Klaxons and Lightspeed Champion which grafts emo onto uninspired noise rock electronica. Night is the only Chems record I don’t still have on CD and with good reason.
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#8] Born in the Echoes
The next three entries have had points docked due to a relative lack of cohesion, each feeling less like a flowing set and more like a grab bag of different ideas they wanted to try and which we largely hop between with only slight connectivity. That’s most true of 2015’s Born in the Echoes, their first and only album to date to not have any of its tracks openly segue into one another. Whilst not outright bad at any point (perhaps save for the aimless clatter of ‘Just Bang’), Echoes doesn’t feel particularly essential especially after the record it followed. Some of its highs were better executed on prior records – the Q-Tip-featuring ‘Go’ pales in comparison to ‘Galvanize’ – and the middle and late-stage runs just don’t stand out like on the best Chem records. Still, there are some absolute crackers on here. St. Vincent dances amidst an ever-tightening paranoid coil on ‘Under Neon Lights’ whilst Ali Love’s turn on the churning carousel of ‘EML Ritual’ is a far better usage of his talents than on ‘Do It Again.’ Deep cut ‘Reflexion’ sounds almost exactly like the Harbor Speedway music from Spyro: Year of the Dragon, and the Beck-featuring closer ‘Wide Open’ is easily the duo’s best since ‘The Private Psychedelic Reel,’ a gorgeous deep house trance riding off into the sunset with surprising though not unwelcome calm.
Much like Echoes, 1999’s Surrender is a bit of a mess which tries a lot but doesn’t always work – in particular, the Mazzy Star team-up ‘Asleep From Day’ is one half-Mazzy and one half-Chems but the two sides aren’t well integrated so the switches feel awkward – with an exceptional opening run tapering off save the occasional highlight afterwards. But it’s an important record, the one which proved that the Brothers were going to stick around, weren’t going to rest on their laurels, and the back-to-back UK #1 singles and platinum-selling album weren’t flukes. And Surrender’s highlights, ultimately shine brighter than Echoes’. ‘Music:Response’ flips a Nicole Wray sample to find the middle-ground between hip hop and Homework-era Daft Punk, ‘Under the Influence’ and ‘Out of Control’ both manage to sound like throwbacks to and the future of festival rave at the exact same time, and breakout single ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’ still sounds as pulsating and exciting to these ears today as they did to five year-old Me’s ears for the first time 20 years ago. Meanwhile, ‘Got Glint’ might be the just-plain coolest thing the Brothers have ever cooked up, winding up on a looping electronic bassline like a jack-in-the-box before the disco ball shimmers all over its chorus with those glistening synths and a universal message about the unity of dance vocodered almost beyond recognition.
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#6] Push the Button
Real talk: if it weren’t for ‘Left Right,’ I would probably have ranked this two steps higher. Whilst still very much a grab bag of various sounds, ideas, collabs, experimentations, and chart plays, 2005’s Push the Button is by and large one of the finest collections of songs Rowlands and Simons have ever committed to wax. So much of this just bangs. You got all-time jock jam ‘Galvanize,’ for one! ‘Believe’ foreshadows vocalist Kele Okereke’s eventual slide into dance music with his solo work and Bloc Party yet bodies the living daylights out of them with a full-force hard house charge. ‘Shake Break Bounce’ hops all over M.I.A. style dancehall, ‘The Boxer’ is perhaps the most criminally underrated single in the duo’s career… I could sit here and write effusive praise about almost every track, honestly. Button has really grown on me over the years, creeping up on my personal rotation and power rankings and flowing far better than initially thought. It’s just a shame that, slap-bang in the middle, there’s ‘Left Right,’ a truly miserable mid-tempo hip hop number which utterly destroys the album’s pacing with its ungainly lumber even before Anwar Superstar shows up to joylessly and (worse) rhythmless-ly bark over the tepid beat for four disastrous minutes. It singlehandedly drags the album down several rungs.
#5] No Geography
Almost every album since Push the Button has been billed as a return to the Brothers’ 90s heyday, but No Geography comes closest to justifying that billing since it was predominately made using the same instruments, sequencers, and modulators which were responsible for their early work and has a very 90s electronic feel permeating throughout. ‘Gravity Drops’ in particular has a throwback cyberpunk sensation that I always ride for, whilst ‘Free Yourself’ and ‘MAH’ could slide right into a 90s rave setlist just as smoothly as they do a 2010s rave setlist. But this is no rehash. In certain respects, it’s almost like Rowlands and Simons are trying to mine all the 90s electronic sounds they missed out on whilst serving the big beat masters, the album’s sequencing and flow marrying their Side B psychedelia tendencies with moment-seizing political undertones – ‘We’ve Got to Try,’ the Network “I’m mad as hell and I ain’t gonna take it no more” hook of ‘MAH’ (albeit nicked from El Coco’s 1977 song), the title of the album itself – to transcend both the dates of its influences and its creation. Plus, there are hooks coming out of every corner of this record, goddamn! There’s a reason why this is currently one of my favourite albums of the year.
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#4] Exit Planet Dust
The one which started it all. Exit Planet Dust is arguably two albums in one, cleanly divided through the middle, the first half being an all-out speaker assault of the biggest big beat whilst the second half is a slower and more restrained psychedelic comedown based around grooves. Less talented and more cynical acts would have used this genius divide as an excuse to slack on Side B, the typical 90s strategy of frontloading the album with all the club-levelling singles before petering out with half-baked filler. The Chems, fortunately, did not do that. Instead, both halves are totally solid, offering up contrasting vibes yet not skimping on banging tunes. This is the album with ‘Leave Home,’ the cacophonous ‘Song to the Siren,’ and ‘Chemical Beats,’ the last of which has been canonised into a generation of a certain age thanks to its placement on the original WipEout soundtrack. But it’s also the album with the woozy ‘One Too Many Mornings,’ the dreamy closer ‘Alive Alone,’ and especially ‘Chico’s Groove’ which is just made by what can only be described as a whale’s cry burbling up halfway through. Really, the only major knock I have against the record is that it ended up being outdone by Dig Your Own Hole two years later, the sequel blowing its predecessor’s 4:3 aspect ratio out to widescreen and refining the template to its most potent form. As criticisms go, it’s not a bad one to be saddled with.
#3] Come With Us
Somewhat maligned upon release, I’ve found 2002’s Come With Us to hold up extremely well in the years since. A retrenchment of sorts following the celeb grab bag of Surrender, the Brothers marry the cohesive set-based journey of their first two records with the willingness to turn their sound inside out of their third, and the resulting concoction is near-enough the best of both worlds. World music influences rubbing up against big beat staples is the order of the day with the former freshening up the latter in a sonically delightful manner which makes this one of the duo’s best records to listen to on a good pair of headphones. ‘It Began in Afrika’ offsets a four-to-the-floor backbeat with polyrhythmic drum accents and expertly-timed old-fashioned scratches, ‘My Elastic Eye’ booms in with electro-hop force for a fun-as-hell three minutes, whilst ‘Hoops’ contrasts techno’s pulse with the Latin-tinged psychedelic pop of an obscure The Association B-side before melding the two together in a manner which should not work as hypnotically as it does. And then there’s ‘Star Guitar,’ still pure and perfect after all these years. If you haven’t given Come With Us a shot in a while or wrote it off because of the admittedly dead-cheesy ‘The Test,’ I urge you to dust it off. It’s aging surprisingly gracefully.
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#2] Dig Your Own Hole
Now, Dig Your Own Hole is never not going to scream mid-90s, carbon dating itself as 1997 from the instant one pushes the play button, let alone the centrepiece appearance of Noel Gallagher moonlighting from his day job. But I do not consider this at all a negative because the adrenaline rush I get when listening has yet to dissipate after all these years. Pound for pound, track for track, this is the quintessential Chemical Brothers album. Beats so hard and heavy they could level city blocks if played through big enough speakers (‘Block Rockin’ Beats,’ ‘Setting Sun,’ ‘It Doesn’t Matter’). Off-kilter samples twisted and distorted in such a manner that they become the most unlikely of hooks (‘Elektrobank,’ ‘Lost in the K-Hole’). Utterly filthy basslines (almost the whole damn record). Knowing just when to let up for a brief moment of lucidity before plunging back in (‘Where Do I Begin’). And “The Private Psychedelic Reel!” Home to a drop so perfect that the Brothers’ are absolutely justified in spamming it over and over again with almost no meaningful variation across nearly 10 minutes! For most other artists, it’s the kind of record that could never be equalled. For the Chems, they somehow bettered it.
Nobody’s going to confuse 2010’s adventurous Further for anything but a Chemical Brothers album, but it really does see them exploring risky and bold new frontiers. It’s their only one to date with no credited guest features, Rowlands himself sings on most of the tracks with brief cameos by Stephanie Dosen. It contains no obvious breakout singles, the closest being ‘Swoon’ but that’s six minutes long. It embraces texture and restraint in a manner heretofore unseen on a Chems full-length, opener ‘Snow’ glitches and screeches for five minutes but the actual drop doesn’t arrive until almost three minutes into the next song. And even more so than their sublime first two albums, Further is intended to be experienced primarily as a complete statement, a record you listen through in one sitting from ‘Snow’ to ‘Wonders of the Deep’ just eight tracks later.
Most Chems tracks aim for the gut, for an immediate visceral thrill that makes the listener feel like the coolest and most badass motherfucker in the room. The tracks on Further instead aim for the head, for someone to sit and absorb it in a manner where the nuances linger long after listening: the way the build on ‘Escape Velocity’ sounds like it’s sucking all the air out of the room, how ‘Dissolve’ so lightly hangs in the air around its midpoint as if having broken through the clouds. Further is one of the best albums of the decade and the reason I gave it the nod over Dig Your Own Hole is very simple. Hole’s highs sound equally as great out of sequence on the album as they do in sequence. Further’s highs, such as the perfect euphoria of ‘Swoon,’ are brilliant out of context but transcendent in context as they build and play off of each other. Astonishing.