The primary tools of the trade for drum-and-bass pioneers included sequencers and samplers, which became widely available during the '90s. Suddenly a bored (and often extremely stoned) guy behind a laptop computer could put together a massive mosaic of rhythm, with each and every hit timed (and tuned) precisely. With the availability of a tool to totally manipulate the grid of time and sound, compositional barriers fell to the ground. Density was no longer an issue. And when linked to a sampler, neither was variety.
The mostly late-'90s discs listed here cannot possibly hope to cover the rich variety of drum-and-bass. You'll find hundreds of variations elsewhere which border with trance, rap, hip-hop, metal, jazz, and classical. New music is being made each day.
In this listing, the beat itself is the emphasis: the meter is creativity. The order is chronological. The tone ranges from subterranean to explosive. Start with any of these, but I'd recommend the first.
Squarepusher: Feed Me Weird Things (Rephlex, 1996)
Tom Jenkinson's first full-length as Squarepusher builds off dainty guitar and fretless bass work, which he inevitably envelops with spectacularly manic and detailed drum work. Second only to his followup EP Vic Acid, this is drill-n-bass at its finest.
Aphex Twin: Richard D. James Album (Elektra, 1996)
Not to be outdone, Aphex Twin leaps full-on into the meaty beats on his eponymous record. This one remains melodic and atmospheric at heart, but massive helpings of rapid-fire beats raise the energy level several notches.
Autechre: Tri Repetae++ (Warp, 1996)
Warp was becoming an influential label for inventive d-n-b. On this double set, Autechre approaches the field from a stark, purist attitude that relies upon decorated, evolving loops instead of outright melody.
Amon Tobin: Bricolage (Ninja Tune, 1996)
After a brief stint as Cujo, Brazilian artist Amon Tobin took d-n-b by storm, favoring jazzy samples and highly stylized, often swinging, rhythms. His later records are all quite good.
Bisk: Strange or funny-haha? (Sub Rosa, 1997)
With Bisk's debut, Time, out of print, you'll have to settle for second best. This innovative Japanese composer approaches d-n-b as a colorist and trickster, relying on a massive palette of sounds and rhythms, even quite jazzy at times.
Plug: Drum'n'bass for Papa (Nothing/Interscope, 1997)
Plugger Luke Vibert pulled together material from previous releases to create this two-CD set. It's a warm, mysterious work: the beats form coherent structures around which swirl bells and demons.
Lamb: Lamb (Mercury, 1997)
Crossing the border into trip-hop, this ambitious duo fuses warm, tenuous female vocals with song form construction that relies upon percolating, off-center d-n-b rhythms. Timing is everything here.
Photek: Modus Operandi (Astralwerks, 1997)
After popping out scores of tracks everywhere, Photek finally got it together to make this full-length debut. It fuses hypnotic ambience (including strange animal-like noises) with emphatic pulsing, looping beats.
Talvin Singh: OK (Polygram, 1998)
Something of a production auteur, Singh cooks up a spectacular recipe here, borrowing from tabla as much as sequenced drum hits, using spoken word and qawwali devotional music in the mix.
Squarepusher: Go Plastic (Warp, 2001)
Five years after breaking all the rules, Squarepusher's back. His sources here include a wide variety of instrumental, vocal, and computer-generated sounds; and despite its mostly song-form orientation, this is volatile, incendiary stuff.