Since the popularization of the synthesizer around the mid ‘70s, electronic or “digital” dance music has been incredibly relevant. Whether it was made more subtle, through new wave, or obvious, through synth-pop, the increase in technology brought a whole new realm of instrumentation that has arguably run the genre since disco became less relevant. But despite the newly-found music being tailored toward energetic, dance-friendly club music, and eventually radio-friendly pop, there were going to be those who went against the grain. And by the early ‘90s, a whole new take on dance music would eventually flip it on its head.
The death of disco, and birth of synth-pop marked a huge shift in popular music trends, coming into the early ‘80s. The sound that once ran clubs was being taken over by something much more modernized, and many DJs were left out in the cold. But as a reaction to this shift, many of the DJs began to alter the old disco with the very thing that killed it. Through several takes on synthetic music production, a lot of the same patterns of disco were being revived through techno, rave, and house music, and came to rule a majority of clubs again, after a few years. But in the music industry, genres rarely stagnate, and much of the club music was being taken in an entirely different direction by the decade’s finale.
Generated from a select few individuals in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a new, ambient version of dance music was gaining relevance. Aphex Twin, Autechre, the Orb, and more, were finding ways of taking these new club-friendly jams, and experimenting with them, to create something meant for inactive listening. This new group of artists were almost entirely centralized in the United Kingdom, and after a few years’ of work, ended up appearing on a compilation album released by record label Warp, called Artificial Intelligence (1992). This large release would prove pivotal and influential to all of dance music, but would more importantly, officially birth the genre IDM.
Following the release of Artificial Intelligence, a supposed electronic mail chain was created in the United States, titled the “IDM List.” Its main purpose was to discuss the artists featured on the compilation, and the term was thus adopted from there. But while its usage is nearly universal at this point, it has faced a lot of backlash. The meaning, “Intelligent Dance Music,” is understandably seen as posh or arrogant with its use of “intelligent,” and isn’t typically produced for dancing either. But nonetheless it maintains as its main label, no matter how many listeners, or artists display frustration.
IDM itself is incredibly hard to define, especially considering its incredibly niche origin story. Almost every IDM artist’s sound is unique to themselves. A variety of them rely on heavy sampling, but even then, the nature of the sampling is different for each group. Boards of Canada love sampling human speech, while Matmos take more from industrial noises, or even surgical procedures. While the origin was initially the UK, since the early ‘90s, it has spread across the globe, so the once-centralized geography has split. As a result, the main features it holds onto are its electronic base, ambient focus, experimental tendencies, and overall complexity. But its lack of a solid definition keeps it as one of the more unique, and variant genres out there.
Various Artists – Artificial Intelligence (1992)
The record that marked the official transition from a small group of artists, to a full-blown style of music, is still a great record today. Taking the best of the best from the early creators of its landmark sound, it continues as a dominant example of what IDM truly is. What makes the record truly representative of the genre as a whole, is still the large collection of different perspectives, simply because it’s a compilation. For a genre that’s so tailored to the individual creators, it’s fitting to have such an important record be so flexible, and inclusive.
Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)
Aphex Twin’s origins stretch a long way, from the time he was about thirteen or fourteen, and this project illustrates all of that perfectly. Evolving alongside these electronic transitions, he took from just about all of them, deconstructed them to their basics, and messed with them at home. This album’s production quality isn’t outstanding, as most of his tools were homemade. And each track is bare-bone beats, and ambient melodies. But his humble beginnings land right next to the genre’s, and show exactly where this all came from. It has since become perhaps the staple IDM release, simply due to its relevance to all electronica.
Autechre – Incunabula (1993)
By now, Autechre have one of the largest discographies out there, spanning roughly thirty releases, including EPs, in just twenty years. Their first LP, Incunabula, isn’t the most experimental of their long list, but it is the one that started it all. It sticks to the traditional techno sound, but all of the signs of experimentation begin to blossom the further you get in. Tracks like “Basscadet” use tinny, abrasive scratching, and very chaotic metal tings alongside the other more “normal” aspects. It’s a stepping-stone for the genre, as it shows its initially-basic roots, but also the unconventional additions that would soon take them over.
B12 – Electro-Soma (1993)
Electro-Soma may not be as groundbreaking as something like Artificial Intelligence, but its importance is still there. While many of the other groups were paving the way with completely new, environment-building, sonic tools, B12 were taking the relatively-popular electronica of Detroit, and making it a bit darker, and unique. They brought the word “inspiration” to a whole new definition, but not to the point of thievery. Rather, their usage of smooth and accessible rave-based tunes probably just led to more fans entering the normally-eccentric scene.
Boards of Canada – Music Has the Right to Children (1999)
Boards of Canada are up there with Aphex Twin, as the giants of the IDM genre. Each project seems to convey a different story, and their habit of sampling human speech brings a strong level of relatability to it as well. Music Has the Right to Children is perhaps their brightest, and happiest release of all. The childish voices heard throughout the record create a strong nostalgia. But at the same time, there’s a level of innate anxiety. Many people have theorized it’s about a lost child, but Boards of Canada always leave it up to your interpretation. Only one thing is certain; it’s beautiful.
Four Tet – Rounds (2003)
Due to its nature as an experimental genre, IDM often disguises itself as something else. Rounds is an electronic masterpiece that doesn’t sound electronic at all. With its clever usage of acoustic elements, it sounds incredibly natural, barring a few moments on each track. And because of this, it feels very human, and emotional. The strings on “My Angel Rocks Back and Forth,” are chilling, as is the piano on “Unspoken.” Together, it’s a very powerful instrumental project.
Sweet Trip – Velocity: Design: Comfort. (2003)
Sweet Trip are one of, if not the only group to fuse IDM with genres like dream pop, and shoegaze. With blasting synthesizers, and other glitch-heavy sounds, they use a standard wall of sound approach to production, but with a bit of a spin. The overwhelming, condensed electronica often mimics the numerous layers of guitars found in genres like noise rock, creating what sounds like a digital Slowdive. Their vocals also come through solidly, which is very rarely seen in EDM, let-alone IDM. It’s as if ‘90s music trends were made fifty years in the future.
Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma (2010)
Flying Lotus took a very unique approach, even for IDM, on Cosmogramma. With influences from psychedelia, hip hop, and jazz, there are many instruments on here that aren’t normally featured in the genre as a whole. The bass solo from “Pickled!,” and the smooth saxophone on “German Haircut,” are good examples of this. It was initially constructed to act as a lucid dream, and a map of the cosmos, so almost every emotion and experience is wrapped up in this long, seventeen-track project. It also has outstanding collaborations from artists like Thundercat, and Thom Yorke.
Against All Logic – 2012-2017 (2018)
Nicolas Jaar quickly became well known in the electronic music community with his first release, Space Is Only Noise (2011). Most recently, he’s released two compilations of abandoned projects under the alias Against All Logic. The first of these, 2012-2017, is an incredibly accessible IDM record, because it consistently toes the line between IDM and standard house music. For all of the experimentation inside of it, every track has at least one section that could easily play at a club. And the fact that it’s more of a compilation than a cohesive unit means there’s more fun and variety along the way.
Matmos – Plastic Anniversary (2019)
Matmos’s experimentation with sound production has always been out there. Their most popular record, A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure (2001), became well-known for yanking sounds from a variety of medical procedures. Plastic Anniversary takes it to a new level, producing every sound on the record with a plastic object. Hearing them attempt to recreate electronic noises with creative uses of physical objects is fun in its own way, but the compositions continue to be entertaining and catchy as well. It’s one of the high points of musical creativity, and didn’t lose its strengths along the way.