Sunday, August 09, 2015

My top ten Chemical Brothers songs

A few weeks ago, electronic "big beat" duo The Chemical Brothers released their newest album. The duo, composed of Englishmen Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, has spent the last two decades layering breakbeats, samples, and synths into bombastic tunes that run the gamut from 80s old-school hip-hop to 60s acid rock. They are among my favorite bands.

Their latest album, Born in the Echoes, is meeting with fair-to-positive reviews. I myself think it's kind of hit-or-miss, although the sinewy distortion of "Reflexion" is classic Chemical Brothers and "Wide Open," a hypnotic, soulful collaboration with Beck, needs to be released as a single.

The Chemical Brothers marked their newest album's debut on their Facebook page by asking their fans what their top ten songs were. The post was prompted by a Stereogum article listing what that magazine felt were the duo's top ten tracks. It's not the only top ten list of Chemical Brothers tracks out there, either; EDM website The Untz has a top ten list, and created a top ten video as well.

So, in the spirit of "if they can do it, why can't I?," and in honor of the Chemical Brothers' most recent release (as well as next week's 20th anniversary of the release of their first album, Exit Planet Dust), I decided to create a top ten list of my own. I therefore present the official Mean Green Cougar Red list of the top ten Chemical Brothers songs:

10. "Surface to Air" (Push the Button)
2005's Grammy-winning Push the Button is probably best known for the track "Galvanize," a 2000s nightclub standard featuring a memorable Middle Eastern string loop and lyrics by Q-Tip (which would probably compete with "Setting Sun" for #11 on this list). That being said, my favorite track on the album is the last one: an insistent, ambient jam that provides an excellent soundtrack for working out, driving across the country at night, or filming a Red Bull promotional video. It's mind-clearing mood enhancement in sonic form.

9. "Come With Us" (Come with Us)
Their fourth album, released in 2002, included the frenetic tribal beat of "It Began in Africa," the head-bobbing "Galaxy Bounce," and the shimmering, Bowie-influenced "Star Guitar." Those are all great songs, but my favorite is the opening and title track, which escalates, pulsates, swirls, and, as Allmusic notes, "detonates like a bomb blast." It sets the tone for what I believe is one of their stronger and more cohesive albums. I especially enjoy the bassy breakdown at the 3:30 mark.

8. "The Private Psychedelic Reel" (Dig Your Own Hole)
As the aforementioned Stereogum article explains:
Named for a legendary rumored recording the Beatles supposedly made for themselves to drop acid to, “The Private Psychedelic Reel” takes some recognizable elements of vintage psychedelia — a droning, chiming sitar chief amongst them — fuses it with a characteristically oversized drum loop, drops it in the middle of a Blade Runner flying car rush hour, and then gets Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue to lace it with a clarinet freakout, of all things.
Indeed, one of their most unique and innovative songs.

7. Hey Boy Hey Girl (Surrender)
1999's Surrender was a bit more house-oriented than the previous two Chemical Brothers releases.  That's evident in this playful song, which features a driving disco beat, rave-y acid synths, and a sample from 1984 hip-hip standard "The Roof Is On Fire" by Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three. That's Ed and Tom getting out of the taxi at the end of this skeleton-centric video:

6. Escape Velocity (Further)
2010's Further achieves liftoff with its second track, which perhaps gets its name from a phrase in a Guardian review of their music from a few years before. To Stereogum, once more:
“Escape Velocity” pulls off more breathtaking force in twelve minutes than most on-wax dance acts are usually capable of outside the mass-moving expanse of a festival crowd. And it does so with a drive that fuses rise-and-fall dynamics with a sound lab’s worth of dance music history, decades of accumulated influence worked into contemporary motion.

5. "Where Do I Begin" (Dig Your Own Hole)
With a looped guitar sample and a morning-after lament by Beth Orton that layers upon itself, this song slowly and hypnotically builds, not finally releasing its tension into a cymbal-heavy breakbeat until over three minutes in. At the 4:45 mark, the song transforms once again, this time into what could best be described as an accelerating motorbike. It's kind of weird, but it's an appropriate conclusion to a song that is, for all intents and purposes, the soundtrack to a head-splitting Sunday morning hangover.

4. "Burst Generator" (We Are The Night)
In spite of winning Rowlands and Simons their second Grammy Award for Best Electronic/Dance Album, 2007's We Are The Night garnered mixed reviews from critics. While the album is somewhat scattershot - seriously, WTF was the deal with "The Salmon Dance?" - it nevertheless contains some solid tracks. "Burst Generator," as its name implies, features a series of build-and-release sonic bursts above a pulsing bassline and amidst a reverberating wall of sound. It was never released as a single nor is there an official video for it; there is this fan video which, albeit interesting, is clearly based off the official video for Star Guitar.

3. "Let Forever Be" (Surrender)
Rowlands and Simons have been heavily influenced by The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," and it is evident in this track. Noel Gallagher (of Oasis fame) provides psychedelic-textured lyrics over a furious drum loop and gurgling bass. This trippy Michel Gondry-directed video is one of the Chemical Brothers' most well-known videos.

2. "Life Is Sweet" (Exit Planet Dust)
This paean to a happy-go-lucky life features a throbbing, grinding bassline over an intense breakbeat  and breathy vocals provided by Tim Burgess of The Charlatans, all punctuated with a sampled shout of triumph. Allmusic describes the track as "somewhere between straight-ahead techno and alternative dance with just a bit of funk thrown in for good measure," and it sounds as fresh and ebullient today as it did when it was released twenty years ago. The song in the video omits the last couple of minutes of the album track, which transforms into something more spacey and ambient. 

1. Dissolve (Further)
At the same time psychedelic and symphonic, this track (never released as a single) is an homage to classic rock. The intro recalls The Who's "Baba O'Riley," the acid synth riff that dominates the song is a nod to the Beatles' "It's All too Much," the soaring counter-melodies are reminiscent of "Here Comes the Sun," and even the drums sound like something out of a sixties acid rock track. It all - shall I say "dissolves?" - into an oboe-paced interlude featuring trippy lyrics supplied by the Brothers themselves before dropping into a grande finale whose sonic intensity would blow your average hippie's LSD-fried mind. To shed any additional doubts of this tunes' 1960s provenance, take a look at the official video, which features British actress Romola Garai running the gauntlet of freaks and creeps and until she finds her man.

This is, without question, my favorite Chemical Brothers tune.

Tracks 11-20: "Galvanize" (Push the Button), "Setting Sun" (Dig Your Own Hole), "Out of Control" (Surrender), "Leave Home" (Exit Planet Dust), "It Began in Africa" (Come With Us), "Wide Open" (Born in the Echoes), "Block Rockin' Beats" (Dig Your Own Hole), "A Modern Midnight Conversation" (We Are The Night), "Star Guitar" (Come With Us), and "The Sunshine Underground" (Surrender).

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