Ten reasons 1996 was a great year for dance music

1996 was a year to remember for so many reasons. Finley’s finest Spiderbait came number one in the Hottest 100; pop music was gifted the first chart topper by the Spice Girls; Will Smith punched an alien in Independence Day; and rock and indie fans got classic albums from Belle & Sebastian, Sleater Kinney, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and…Barenaked Ladies.

More importantly, 1996 also played host to an impressive output of indelible dance albums, from chart-toppers to scene-starters, massively-influential mix CDs and bona fide classics that still sound fresh two decades later.

inthemix writers JIM POE, KATIE CUNNINGHAM and NICK JARVIS have gathered together here ten of the best albums and mixes from 1996, and it’s a handy overview of where dance music was at 20 years ago: trip-hop and ambient electronica was everywhere, big beat was just starting to blow up, drum & bass breaks were working their way into unexpected corners, and prog-house still ruled the raves. 

Scroll down to discover (or rediscover) ten seminal albums – in no particular order – that are two decades old.

#10 Fatboy Slim – Better Living Through Chemistry

Two years before Norman Cook’s Fatboy Slim alias took over the world – putting big beat onto dancefloors everywhere with his powerhouse You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby and becoming a household name in the process – he hinted at the potential to come with 1996’s Better Living Through Chemistry.

The ten-track album’s packed to bursting with catchy breakbeats and tasty funk samples, from acid-lite lead single Everybody Needs a 303 (with its middle-finger-at-the-music-industry film clip) to the Pete Townshend collaboration Going Out of My Head. Pillaging old funk records never sounded so pop. [Nick Jarvis]

#9 The Jedi Knights – New School Science

The dynamic duo of Mark Pritchard and Tom Middleton, more usually known as Global Communication, were jacks of all electronic trades during their ’90s heyday. Over various releases they mined many strata of electronic music, including deep house, techno, drum & bass and ambient.

The Jedi Knights project (hard to imagine Disney letting them get away with that name now) stood somewhere in the middle of all of that, with the pair whipping up a heady brew of funk, spacey breakbeat jazz and wicked, thumping electro; standouts like May the Funk Be With You pummelled dancefloors across many formats from house to trip-hop. “That’ll funk ’em,” their cartoon counterparts declare on the manga-inspired comic on the sleeve.

New School Science also helped pioneer the nu-jazz and broken-beat sounds that would become dominant later in the decade. Clearly the funk was strong with them. [Jim Poe]

#8 Everything But the Girl – Walking Wounded

Walking Wounded is a wonderful snapshot of the mid-90s, a halfway marker between the alternative and indie that soundtracked the coffeehouses of the ’80s and early ’90s and the electronic and club sounds that rose to prominence during the decade. EBTG had been at it for years, building a loyal following for their folky “sophisti-pop,” but they turned a corner into a more beat-centric realm after collaborating with Massive Attack in 1994.

Todd Terry’s remix of Missing was inescapable in the summer of ’95, as big in underground clubs as it was on the radio, in part because Thorn’s keening, sombre, icily soulful vocal struck a universal nerve. The audaciousness with which the rest of the album married its melancholy indie ballads to drum & bass and handbag house ushered in a new era of bleakly beautiful electronic pop.

Ben Watt’s shimmering soundscapes and Tracey Thorn’s aching vocals have a cool, easy-listening accessibility; the cover design – amusingly dated but still eerily striking – speaks worlds about the angst and artifice of the era. [Jim Poe]

#7 LTJ Bukem Presents Logical Progression

Logical Progression was one of the ultimate expressions of the mid-’90s UK electronic zeitgeist. A compilation of tracks from London producer and DJ LTJ Bukem’s Good Looking Records, it captured the essence of the post-rave, post-jungle, post-everything drum & bass sound – perhaps the one uniquely, quintessentially British genre of dance music.

Bukem rightly hated the term “intelligent drum & bass” to describe the music – as if other kinds of jungle were lacking intelligence. But there’s no questioning the smarts and vision behind the sounds here, which fuse jungle with Detroit techno, rare groove, acid jazz and house. The kinetic, crystalline, melody-saturated tracks by Peshay, Aquarius & Tayla, The Chameleon (who also made this list as the Jedi Knights), PFM and Bukem himself still sound so transcendentally cool and futurist without compromising the sub-bass boom.

The album became a deserved hit and, along with Goldie’s Timeless LP, helped spread the gospel of D&B to a wider audience outside the clubs and far beyond the UK’s shores, along the way becoming one of the great chillout albums of the decade. [Jim Poe]

#6 Sneaker Pimps – Becoming X

Shortly after they finished touring Becoming X, Sneaker Pimps made what would later go down as A Very Bad Decision. Founding members Liam Howe and Chris Corner decided that the songs they were working on for their follow-up album were better suited to male vocals, so they showed singer Kelli Dayton the door and put Corner in front of the mic. It didn’t work. Without Dayton’s cool, disaffected drawl, Sneaker Pimps lost their allure, were dropped by their label and failed to make much more than a ripple with their two subsequent LPs.

Which makes Becoming X all the more special. This is Sneaker Pimps at their short-lived peak, contributing their lone entry to the trip-hop hall of fame. Dark, sparse production sets the atmosphere, but it’s the attitude of the album that elevates it to the league of the greats: “Don’t think ‘cause I understand, I care/ Don’t think ‘cause I’m talking, we’re friends,” Dayton sasses on enduring favourite 6 Underground, a perfect musical embodiment of the hair-flick emoji 20 years ahead of schedule. [Katie Cunningham]

#5 Aphex Twin – Richard D. James Album

Aphex Twin’s fourth album is at once one of his most accessible and one of his weirdest. Richard James’s output forever presents such paradoxes. On this album, more than ever, he creates staggeringly beautiful and cinematic soundscapes, worthy of comparison to contemporary masters such as Brian Eno and Philip Glass, and then subverts them with noise (sometimes thrilling, sometimes annoying) and incomprehensibly knotty beats.

Whether or not this is a more personal work from James is uncertain – perhaps naming the album after himself is, like the evil-looking self-portrait on the cover, just another of his pranks. Working extensively with digital plug-ins instead of analogue synths for the first time, and heavily influenced by the work of friend and fellow mad beatmeister Luke Vibert (Wagon Christ), James took the drum & bass sound of the day and sliced and diced it into something at times almost inhuman.

Yet the music frequently attains a grace and clarity (as on the climactic sequence that pairs the effervescent Yellow Calx and the orchestral Girl/Boy Song) that few others besides Warp labelmates Boards of Canada have ever achieved. No wonder it’s regularly named as one of the best albums of the decade. [Jim Poe]

#4 DJ Shadow – Endtroducing

It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since DJ Shadow’s jaw-dropping debut came out: the album that launched a thousand sample obsessions, inspired Diplo to get into production (his 2004 debut Florida is a clear homage to Shadow’s Endtroducing), bridged the gap between backpack rap fans, lovers of experimental electronica and all the other weed smokers in between, and spawned numberless trip-hop imitators.

Endtroducing brought together the fastidiousness of crate-digging for samples with the improvisational cut-and-paste of turntablism, and took Josh ‘DJ Shadow’ Davis two years to piece together with nothing but crates full of old records, a Technics 1200 turntable, an MPC sampler and a tape deck.

There’s good reason why Endtroducing is frequently found in critical lists of the ‘90s best albums across every genre – in one fell swoop it birthed a whole new sub-genre of instrumental hip hop and then shut it down, because no one can ever better Endtroducing on its own turf. [Nick Jarvis]

#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]