All Music Guide to Electronica
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.