The Chemical Brothers perform live in 1995
Photo: Mick Hutson/Redferns
How 1995 Became The Year Dance Music Albums Came Of Age
Back in 1995, years before the rise of Coachella, Lollapalooza was the U.S. festival to beat. Founded in 1991 by Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, the multi-city roadshow quickly became a peak 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, though, the festival largely missed one sound close to its founder's heart: electronic music. Even Moby, the former punk and sole raver on the bill, turned up with a guitar and his best rock snarl.
Across the Atlantic, iconic U.K. festival Glastonbury took an alternative view on 1995: In its universe, electronic music was on the ascent. For the first time in Glastonbury's then-25-year history, the festival introduced a Dance Tent, which featured trip-hop collective Massive Attack alongside homegrown DJs Carl Cox, Spooky and Darren Emerson.
Elsewhere, from the main stage to the Jazz World stage, Glastonbury lined up the best and brightest of U.K.-made electronic music: The Prodigy, Portishead, Tricky, Goldie and Orbital among them. That June weekend, a musical movement coalesced on a farm in the English countryside.
One year prior, The Prodigy's Music For The Jilted Generation lit the fuse on the momentum 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 loomed large Stateside, while in the U.K., Blur's Parklife and Oasis' Definitely Maybe battled for Britpop supremacy. Liam Howlett, The Prodigy's beatmaker-in-chief, came from a different world. Music For The Jilted Generation cut the grit and aggression of punk rock with the ecstatic highs of raving, producing indelible anthems like "Their Law" and "No Good (Start The Dance)." The album topped the charts in the U.K., but it failed to break through in the U.S.
By the next year, a varied cast of then-newcomers was ready to make its mark. Not all fit The Prodigy's fast and furious mold. The crop of albums released in 1995, including several remarkable debuts, showcased the many moods, textures and possibilities in electronic music. The year brought legitimacy and studio polish to the format, while also sparking an era of intense, analog-heavy live shows.
Released in January 1995, Leftfield's Leftism reached for 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 alt-rock group Curve and The Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon, to challenge the demarcation of dance music. While the album was nominally "progressive house," its songs channeled the thrum of London through dub, reggae and pop hooks. Over two decades later, Leftism remains thrillingly true to its time and place.
Across the country from Liam Howlett's Essex studio, Bristol natives Massive Attack had their own designs on the jilted generation. Where The Prodigy raged, Massive Attack seethed. Like Leftfield's Leftism, Massive Attack's Blue Lines (1991) and Protection (1994) drew on 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 opener, "Overcome," is an alternative version of Protection cut "Karmacoma." Björk, a then-recent '90s transplant to the U.K. from Iceland, also called on Bristol connections for her startling second album, Post (1995).
Meanwhile, in London, motor-mouthed DJ/producer Goldie emerged from the basement clubs with a fully realized debut album. Released in July 1995, Timeless exemplified the drum & bass genre in LP form, stretching from deep and sonorous atmospherics to heads-down jungle roll-outs. Audacious to a fault, Goldie packaged his star-making single, "Inner City Life," inside a 21-minute opening track. (The opener on his next album, 1998's Saturnz Return, runs an hour long.) Grounded by vocals throughout from the late Diane Charlemagne, Timeless brought widescreen 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 U.K. "Timeless was a f*cking good blueprint," 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 tier with The Prodigy and two French upstarts called Daft Punk—that is, if Daft Punk played the festival game.
After a couple of releases as The Dust Brothers, including the propulsive steamrollers "Chemical Beats" and "Song To The Siren," Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons became The Chemical Brothers with 1995's Exit Planet Dust. (The Dust Brothers name already belonged to a songwriting/production team out of Los Angeles.)
Exit Planet Dust contains none of the reticence you might expect from a debut album. Right from the sleazy chug of opener "Leave Home," it's a dance record with classic rock heft. Even the hippieish cover art, lifted from a 1970s fashion shoot, references a world beyond the rave. (A favorite of early fans, Exit Planet Dust set the stage for the true breakout of 1997's Dig Your Own Hole, which featured the group's career-defining single, "Block Rockin' Beats.")
Crucially, "Chemical Beats" and "Song To The Siren" put The Chemical Brothers on lineups alongside fellow gear geeks Underworld, Leftfield and Orbital. Each act brought a version of their studio hardware to the stage, working the synthesizers, drum machines and mixing consoles under the cover of darkness.
This period of live innovation dovetailed with the superstar DJ phenomenon, ushered in by landmark mix albums like Sasha & Digweed's Northern Exposure (1996) and Paul Oakenfold's Tranceport (1998). A new rank of DJs, predominantly British and male, commanded skyrocketing fees, foreshadowing the excesses of America's own EDM boom more than a decade later. In the run-up to the 2000s, DJs and live acts struck a sometimes-uneven alliance. Fast-forward to Miami's dance massive Ultra Music Festival in the 2010s: DJs represented the main stage status quo, with live acts neatly billed in their own amphitheater.
In the pre-Facebook days of the mid-'90s, dance stars turned to magazines to vent or cause mischief. Aphex Twin, who released his bracing third album, …I Care Because You Do, in 1995, enjoyed derailing interviewers with fanciful responses. Goldie took the opposite approach, talking on and on without a filter. Ed Simons of The Chemical Brothers, on the other hand, got right to the point.
"I'm amazed at the low expectations which have always been centered on dance music," Simons told Muzik Magazine in 1995. In the same interview, he rankled at the critique that his music lacks 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 Paper profile, Björk mocked America's adoption of The Chemical Brothers as electronic saviors: "The Chemical Brothers are hard rock!")
Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill went on to win big at the 1996 GRAMMYs, picking up the Album Of The Year award. For now, dance acts were left watching the party from the kids' table. (The GRAMMYS would later introduce the Best Dance Recording category in 1998.)
By 1997, dance music's outsider reputation was starting to shift, thanks in large part to the streak of groundbreaking albums two years prior. The Prodigy, previously overlooked in the U.S., sparked a label bidding war for its third album, The Fat Of The Land; Madonna's boutique imprint, Maverick Records, won out. Propelled by a polished big beat sound and the introduction of livewire hype man Keith Flint, The Fat Of The Land went to No. 1 in the States. That year, the floodgates opened, delivering Daft Punk's Homework, The Chemical Brothers' Dig Your Own Hole and Aphex Twin's still-creepy Come To Daddy EP.
Lollapalooza's 1997 lineup, in turn, looked a lot different from its 1995 run. This time, founder Perry Farrell brought electronic music to the fore. The change-up had mixed results: Attendance overall was down, The Prodigy protested the venue choices, Orbital and fellow U.K. beatmakers The Orb had to follow Tool, and Tricky felt askew sharing a main stage with Korn. But Lollapalooza's gamble signaled 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. At last, the underdog genre of 1995 had stepped into the light.