All Music Guide to Electronica
The All Music Guide to Electronica
Edited by Vladimir Bogdanov
The unfortunate problem with guides to electronic music is that they have already become obsolete by the time they hit the press. Electronica is a forward-looking genre of music: the ideas and the technology continue to evolve at a prodigious clip.
That said, the All Music Guide to Electronica has a great deal to offer fans of the music, both novice and experienced. This nearly 700-page tome investigates the ideas, the artists, and the recordings which have defined the first couple decades of this relatively new style of music. It's an impressive book in terms of the sheer breadth of its coverage. Karlheinz Stockhausen receives extensive discussion for his ground-breaking '50s recordings; and peripheral artists like Parliament, Public Enemy, and Herbie Hancock get their time in the sun as well. The editors have chosen an inclusive approach to the music, refusing to shy away from its roots in pop, jazz, and classical music. And that's entirely appropriate for an artform which draws inspiration from funk, rap, fusion, serial composition, and prog rock.
The AMG to Electronica features four levels of coverage: historical background and descriptions of the current styles of electronica; information about leading electronic music labels; biographical information about the artists; and in-depth critical reviews of specific recordings. The editors devote the bulk of the book to the reviews, and that's what makes it a useful resource. Individual recordings, even by the same artist, can display huge variations in approach and success. The AMG invests substantial effort to winnow out the masterpieces from the rest.
The fact that many reviewers have come together to create this volume means that it will be by definition somewhat unevenas everyone's tastes differ, and different writers place priority in different places. At times you have to take critical conclusions with a grain of salt, but overall the editors seem to have imposed a reasonable degree of standards. [Note: most of this information is available online at www.allmusic.com , for those who prefer to surf instead of consulting a devoted paper guide.]
While there's always debate about the tags we use to label music, certain concensus categories work very well. The AMG starts off with a relatively brief description of the leading styles in the genre. If you're curious about the differences between House, Techno, Dub, Jungle, and Ambient, this section will answer most of your questions. In general, the terms used and the examples given are apt and informative. Within a genre of music as stylistically diverse as electronic music, the sub-categories really matter.
Rather than some sort of insider High Fidelity -like demonstration of fluency, this breakdown of electronic music into its major family members really helps with understanding the roots and the future directions of the music. Toward the end of the book, the authors present a series of essays and music maps which attempt to cover the history and cross-pollination of styles, along a list of representative recordings which stand as high points. Rather than treating styles of electronica as independent entities, this section stresses their interrelationshipswhich is entirely appropriate.
As a serious fan of the music, I have a couple quibbles. In their initial overview of House music, the authors fail to mention the number one distinguishing feature of this style: four-to-the-floor beats. If there's one thing that sets this style apart, that's it. You'd immediately recognize these regular, unremitting beats right away from the pounding rumbles that spill out of cars full of young hipsters driving late at night. You'd also find them littering the aisles of mainstream electronica pushed on customers at chain stores, where danceable beats apparently offer a strong inducement for purchase. (Consider me allergic to house musicmaybe that's how I've gotten so good at recognizing static rhythm as a killer of quality electronica.) Fortunately, the "style map" essay disposes of this point relatively quickly.
Unfortunately, the description of Jungle/Drum-n-Bass largely omits the greatest pioneer of the genre, Squarepusher. It's hard to imagine what would have happened to this style if Squarepusher (aka Tom Jenkinson) had never come on the scene. His manic, edgy beats took the style to its most extreme logical conclusion. And in his wake, most of the straight D-n-B that has persisted remains largely derivative. You won't find too many people who would disagree with that. (Well, someone at the AMG must have.)
One might not expect record labels to have dominated a form of music which is by definition so broad and (at its best) challenging, but that's exactly what has happened. Record labels have played a huge role in deciding (and organizing) the cutting-edge experimental music that has defined electronica. The majors mostly sat on the sidelines picking up leftovers, recyclers, proven winners, and copycatswhile labels like Mo'Wax, Ninja Tune, Rephlex, Skam, and Warp have been moving the music forward. And since innovation generally means commercial failure, the ability of these labels to stay afloat and keep on the cutting edge is truly remarkable. A fine tribute, and lots of great information here.
Preceding each listing of recordings, the authors offer a concise biographical overview of the artist in question. These descriptions are critical to the success of the book. They offer context, background, and perspective to the lists of records that follow. These short pieces are generally well-researched, accurate, and interesting. They play an important role in humanizing a style of music largely created using machines. You'll learn a lot about the thinking that went into the artistic process, and you'll discover related ideas and artists worth pursuing. A valuable component of the guide.
The meat of the AMG lies in its reviews. And this is also its point of greatest variability. Since such a large number of authors have contributed to this book, you'll find that individual records by an artist are often reviewed by three or four writers. That of course makes comparions quite difficult. The reviews come accompanied by a five-star rating system, which is (in my experience) nearly useless.
The ratings are complicated by different reviewers' biases, and they reflect serious inflation. I couldn't tell you the average score, but it's definitely higher than neutral. (Perhaps that reflects the way the AMG assembles this guide: individual reviewers generally choose the music they write about, which is generally the music they like. Thus the rating inflation.)
More useful are the "dot" and "star" rankings in the margins. With these symbols, the editors have tried to identify the "first purchase" recordings by an artist, as well as the "landmark recordings" that deserve attention from any fan of electronic music. Björk, for example gets two stars: one for her debut and the second for Homogenic. That's right on target. The editors largely ignore retread musicians with these über-ratings, and historically important or aesthetically-victorious records reap them in. If the general rating system is a bit troublesome, at least these stars have intrinsic value. (I don't always agree with their choices, but that's the way it goes.)
The actual descriptions of the music offer a lot of valuable information. One can learn about the general tone of a record, the styles used for its construction, and the notable features which distinguish from other discs in the artist's oeuvre. These critical reviews are generally helpful in deciding what music deserves your money, and also in offering new ideas for music to pursue.
As you might expect from a sprawling guide of this magnitude, some reviews are more on-target than others. That's a given. But more often than not you'll get what you need out of a short paragraph of text. It's worth spending some time to check these reviews out, if nothing else than because it allows you to calibrate your own taste with what the reviewers have to say. With that perspective in mind, you'll know when to leap and when to stand back.