Ten reasons 1996 was a great year for dance music
#3 Orbital – In Sides
After changing the face of electronic music with their seminal first three albums, a triumphant series of tours and a legendary pair of appearances at Glastonbury in ’94 and ’95, Phil and Paul Hartnoll decided to move away from the dancefloor and get more expansive on their fourth LP.
Incorporating different styles, including drum & bass and progressive rock, to enhance their signature epic post-rave atmospherics, and exploring a theme of environmental catastrophe, In Sides is a mature, cinematic suite of songs that put the duo in a league with masters like Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra.
As complex as this music is, it’s also very direct and emotional, and the Hartnoll’s uncanny talent for composing elegant and beautiful electronic melodies shines through, as with the breathtaking keyboards, vocal stabs and strings on The Girl With the Sun in Her Head and Out There Somewhere.
All of this contributed to the album bringing Orbital a wider audience than ever before. In Sides also won huge acclaim from the holdouts in the rock and indie worlds, who were finally starting to get the message that electronica was here to stay. It’s a landmark of the music. [Jim Poe]
#2 Sasha & Digweed – Northern Exposure
In the dogma of progressive house, these two discs are the Stone Tablets, standing tall for over two decades and laying down the law to every DJ who aspires to “take the listeners on a journey”.
Dance music history may be littered with a million mix albums – from DJs promos on discarded USBs to unassailable series like Balance and Renaissance that are still going strong – but few have stood the test of time like the original Northern Exposure.
It holds up in 2016 as a consummate ‘back to mine’ album and a headphone masterpiece, but also as a testament to a time when superstar DJs were unassuming Englishmen who’d never seen the inside of a gym, and everyone in the crowd was too consumed with heads-down dancing to notice the lack of pyro and production. [Nick Jarvis]
#1 Underworld – Second Toughest in the Infants
1996 was Underworld’s long-awaited breakout year. The group, centred around Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, went through various fitfully successful incarnations as a new-wave or electro-pop outfit dating back to 1980; with the advent of rave culture and the addition of DJ Darren Emerson, Underworld MK2 was born around 1992.
The new group’s early tracks like Rez and Cowgirl and the 1994 dubnobasswithmyheadman LP found success with their fusion of techno, progressive, industrial, dub and pop. Second Toughest in the Infants refined that formula into something more expansive and chilled-out, bolstering the rich sonic palette with blues guitar and the excursions into drum & bass that were mandatory that year.
Over an hour and ten minutes and eight loooong, slow-burning tracks, the band patiently weaves a sublime meta-electronic-trance-pop that’s both experimental and accessible, while Hyde’s ghostly distorted vocals flit in and out of the mix. Matthew Dear, The Presets, Ricardo Villalobos and Âme & Dixon are among those who owe a debt to this scintillating sound.
Around the same time, Underworld had their biggest and most enduring hit when the earlier Born Slippy .NUXX was a standout on the Trainspotting soundtrack; it’s not included on Second Toughest, but it allowed this uncompromising album to reach a much bigger audience and seal its legacy. [Jim Poe]