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June 8, 2020

Kat Bein 14 Albums on the Astralwerks Label That Tell the Story of Electronic Music

Between the liner notes of each Astralwerks release lies the story of electronic music. The American record label was formed in 1993 by Brian Long as an imprint of Brit-rock label Caroline Records. Immediately, it’s mission was to give a home to electronic musicians, and within five years, it secured its place as a leader and innovator in the scene.

From its early ambient works through the hay day of electronica into the indie-dance revolution and EDM’s big stand, Astralwerks has released some of the most notable and important electronic music albums in history.

Astralwerls earned its first hit the year that it launched. Seefeel’s debut LP was an emotional, instrumental epic that hit the mark for electronic and indie rock fans alike. Released in the wake of Aphex Twin’s popular Selected Ambient Works 85-92, it’s optimistic and dreamlike soundscapes were praised by critics, drawing comparisons to Cocteau Twins and shoegaze trends. Quique helped give the label a voice and stands strong as a beatific example of its atmospheric roots.

In 1994, Astralwerks hired Peter Wohelski as Head of Artists and Repertoire (A&R). He’s been credited with discovering Manchester duo The Chemical Brothers, who went on to become not only one of the biggest signings for the nascent label but one of the most innovative and timeless acts in electronic music, period. The group’s sophomore LP mixed breakbeat with psychedelic rock to define the late ’90s big beat movement. Hits “Block Rockin’ Beats,” “Elektrobank,” and “Setting Sun” got blood pumpin’ from the U.K. to the U.S. Billboard Charts, appealing to rockers and ravers the world over and ushering in a new electronic era.

One of the most exciting album intros you’ll ever hear is the exotic rush of Fatboy Slim’s “Right Here, Right Now” from this 1998 sophomore masterpiece. It followed in the footsteps of The Chemical Brothers. Hard-hitting, funk flexin’ madness, spawning international generational anthems “The Rockafeller Skank,” “Gangsta Tripping” and “Praise You.” Fatboy’s irreverent flavors and cross-genre style made him an instant icon, and while his productions these days are few and far between, this LP will always be a must-have in any collection.

Another stellar sophomore that demands mention. French space popper Air’s Moon Safari struck sensual and edgy chords with audiences around the world. Its downtempo, dreamy moods aligned with Astralwerks roots while its growling synths and disco sheen of “Sexy Boy” and “Kelly Watch The Stars” stood out with the electronica crowd. It’s one of the most romantic albums on Astralwerks’ roster and remains a classic more than 20 years later.

This debut from French House duo Cassius is a remarkable work of sample-based funk and an underground classic. Philippe Zdar and Boombass came together to create a 16-track stunner that shone bright with muted grooves that turned well-known Al Green, The Whispers, and Gang Starr hits into something completely different. It’s rich layers of sound come to life in headphones, mixing and matching sounds of disco and hip-hop to create a signature sound that makes Cassius one of the best French house acts to ever rip a loop.

The French and the Brits aren’t the only ones allowed to have fun. Enter Norwegian duo Royksopp, whose debut LP, Melody A.M., surfed the wave of feel-good ambiance and chill-hop beats to new melodic heights. Melody A.M. brought more jazzy boombap to the table that Astralwerks’ previous releases, but the glittering synths of “Eple” and bleep bloops of “Royksopp’s Night Out” fit in right at home. Album standout “Remind Me” was a hit for the band, an easygoing bop as bittersweet as it is intergalactic.

A decade into its legacy, Astralwerks had built a reputation for spotting up-and-coming talent destined to become legends. It was only fitting that the label team with the founders of the electronic genre. Kraftwerk is the heart and the spine of everything that came in its wake and Astralwerks released the foursome’s first-ever live album, a two-disc, 22-song collection that encapsulates the artistry and innovation, and was subsequently — and will forever be — sampled by artists, producers, and DJs looking for the perfect beat.

By the mid-2000s, a change was coming on the electronic wind. All the coolest bands were making their beats on synthesizers and drum machines. It was called “indie dance,” and hipsters from sea to shining sea wanted to jam out in neon tanks to the irony-laced beats. Hot Chip were one of the biggest names on the burgeoning scene, and the group’s 2006 sophomore release was a musical milestone. “Boy From School,” “Over and Over,” and “Colours” captured the energy of an emerging generation, and Astralwerks was yet again on the pulse.

Alongside indie-dance came a new breed of electronic producers who mixed catchy hooks with buzzsaw groove. Funky, eclectic, and as influenced by electro and techno as punk and hip-hop, the spattering of new artists would one day be gathered under the umbrella term “bloghouse,” a nod to where fans discovered and downloaded the music files. Digitalism’s 2007 debut is a bloghouse staple that stomped, funked, soared, and grimed with the best. “Idealistic” and “Pogo” were total dance floor favorites.

The gritty disco of the late aughts caught on with college kids across the United States, and soon followed a new breed of beat-freaking pop stars, including Lady Gaga and Kesha. Everyone was chasing laser synths and neon lights. Suddenly, DJs and producers were the new rock stars. “EDM” was all the hype, and three superstars from Sweden came together to become the hottest thing on the market. Swedish House Mafia’s high-octane, VIP sound was hard yet expensive, and Astralwerks clinched the deal for a U.S. release of the trio’s debut album.

At the very peak of EDM’s pop crossover explosion stood French-house-DJ-turned-hit-maker David Guetta. It’s a bit cheesy and over the top, but the 13-track album brought Guetta collaborations with the biggest names in music. Nicki Minaj, Snoop Dogg, Usher, Lil Wayne, will.i.am., Sia, and Timbaland all make appearances on this four-on-the-floor bang fest. It turned Guetta into a star worthy of parody on Saturday Night Live. While the EDM trend may not have aged as well as big beat or indie dance, that Astralwerks was on the release for such a hit album is a testament to the label’s continued trend domination.

In 2012, Astralwerks was bought by Universal Music Group and restructured as an imprint of Capitol Music Group. The label took new signings, including then-teenage Porter Robinson. The world outside began nursing its collective EDM hangover, and in 2014, Robinson came through with a pastel-colored antidote. The North Carolina kid had been one of those big-name DJs, but the shallow club culture left a bitter taste in his mouth. He took a risk and dedicated a concept album to the video game, fantasy, and anime narratives that shaped his youth. It was delicate and dynamic, blistering but sweet, and it spawned a new generation of producers and performers who put live production above waving one’s hands in the air. The risk paid off for Robinson, and Astralwerks once again had a forward-thinking hit.

While Robinson crafted Worlds, Astralwerks and its new parent company signed a budding alt-pop singer named Halsey. The smoky-voiced songstress had a hit right out the gate with her debut LP, Badlands, in 2015, but it was her follow-up, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, that reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200, which was a big first for Astralwerks. The album is heavy with electronic production, though it’s a far cry from the ambient works of the label’s humble beginnings.

Electronic music never ceased its cross-genre pollination and experimentation. Australian producer and DJ Alison Wonderland gained fame through energetic sets and trap-laced bangers. Her sophomore album pitted personal lyrics and daring honesty against heavy beats and emotional orchestrations, and it pushed her to international stardom. That same year, Astralwerks moved its offices from New York to Los Angeles and signed a spattering of new artists and releases, including a U.S. release of Awake, doubling down on its commitment to the next generation of electronic talent.

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Janelle Monáe – Los Angeles, 2010

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Freya Parr The Gabrieli Consort rise to the occasion in Purcell’s The Fairy Queen

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Purcell 
The Fairy Queen 
Carolyn Sampson, Anna Dennis, Mhairi Lawson, Ashley Riches, Roderick Williams; Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh
Signum Classics SIGCD615 139:03mins (2 discs) 

 

'McCreesh’s production rises to the occasion: original voicing, unorthodox continuo, project- specific trumpet design and rediscovered string techniques bring out qualities missing from earlier recordings. Purcell’s hornpipes were never livelier, nor his chaconnes statelier, than in this performance.'

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Unlimited Editions: Yes No Wave Music

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Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike He’s So Unusual: Tom Jones At 80

There is no other Tom Jones. As he approaches his 80th birthday, the icon still is as interesting, sexy, and irreverent as always. In a culture where youth is prized pretty much above all else, Sir Jones is an education in canny business sense, bravery, and reinvention- often against all odds. The inability to predict what he may do next is one of the only foreseeable certainties about the singer. The other is how he has managed to inject raw provocative prowess into even the most inane, making (most) things he touches seem incredibly tantalizing in unexpected ways.

The Rise Of Sir Tom Jones

Jones’s rise to fame is the familiar fairy tale-esque beginning. A young man from South Wales of humble background, the young Thomas John Woodward was not a natural athlete, finding a talent instead in singing. However, any early aspiration of becoming an artist was shelved after he got his high school girlfriend pregnant at the age of 16. A hasty wedding followed by the birth of their son thrust John into being an adult quickly, as he was forced to find work first in a factory making gloves then in the construction business to support his young family.

Though now a father and married, Woodward’s desire to perform and be a frontman did not go away. In 1963, he joined a Welsh beat group. During one of the band’s gigs playing at a working men’s club, Woodward was spotted by Gordon Mills. Originally from South Wales himself, the London based talent manager saw in the young vocalist an opportunity. Mills re-christened Woodward ‘Tom Jones,’ landing his protégé a recording contract with Decca within a year. Jones’s 1965 studio debut Along Came Jones featured several cover tracks and various songs written by Mills for Jones, including his biggest hit, the still omnipresent ‘It’s Not Unusual.’ The single became an international smash, thrusting the Brit into the global spotlight along with artists he had formerly admired, including Elvis Presley, who would become a life-long friend.

As 1965 came to close, Mills noted interest in his new star waning. In a move which would be integral in securing Jones a lifelong career, Mills refashioned the pop singer into a sensual crooner. His visual style- half-open shirt, various medallions nestled in a virile nest of chest hair and incredibly tight pants leaving nothing to the imagination- became a trademark look, part of the package (throat clear) that was a bit dangerous and risqué- therefore incredibly alluring. Residencies at venues such as The Flamingo on Las Vegas’s famous strip and New York’s iconic Copacabana– both places known for over the top indulgence and legendary hijinks- further created a connection between the Welshman and the notion of barely contained libido. This was only further exacerbated by an incident at the latter establishment, where the stage for the performers was on the same level as the tables where the audience sat. According to Jones in a 2015 interview on Larry King, it was a warm night in 1968 at the Copa, and singer Jones was perspiring heavily during his show. The set-up of the club allowed fans to give the singer their napkins to mop his face with during the gig. However, one female fan went a step further, tossing her underwear to the singer. ‘This woman lifted her skirt and took them off,’ Jones told the journalist. ‘Where I come from in South Wales, if someone throws something at you, you try to turn it into an advantage.’ With that attitude, Jones used the knickers to mop his face, unintentionally creating what would become a ritual at his concerts. ‘It was a sexy thing- at the beginning,’ Jones admitted. ‘Then the women would bring them in handbags and it became a joke. It became a problem. I became a knicker magnet.’

The Shift To Television

But just as the pantie deluge became too much, Mills and Jones came up with another pivot for the star’s career: television. Jones had several different variety shows, one from 1969-1971 called This Is Tom Jones and another gracing sets from 1980-1981, simply titled Tom Jones, with guests ranging from I Dream of Jeannie’s Barbara Eden to the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin. Jones was not adverse to also being a guest on other people’s vehicles. He made guest appearances on various other series, including a must-see episode of camp romp Fantasy Island from 1984. Additional trivia point: Jones also starred with none other than the HOFF himself, David Hasselhoff, in a pilot for series Pleasure Cove which never got picked up.

Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

One reason that Jones may be able to evolve seemingly so effortlessly is that he has never taken himself that seriously- a personality trait that makes him even more attractive. As he remerged again on the recording side of his career with nine US country Top 40s in the mid-1980s, Jones still had an eye on other opportunities. Unlike other celebrities who seemingly cannot break away from a specific look from a specific moment in their career (I am looking at you, Robert Smith– love you!), Jones moved gracefully from the hunky bare-chested babe into a smooth suave elder statesman, black fitted suits and tailored attire now teasing the audience to imagine what they could not see instead of focusing on a well-packaged package. This arguably aided in catapulting Jones from kitsch to classic, his involvement in a project giving it a stamp of excellence. Like a good vodka or grass-fed bacon, the addition Jones in even the seemingly most unexpected places just made things that much better. Whether guesting as himself on the classic 90s Will Smith show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or in animated form on The Simpsons, the history of Jones is always there as well. No matter how covered up or seemingly innocuous the setting, everyone- audience and Jones- knows that he is a sex symbol. This adds a layer of cheeky confidence that makes him irresistibly appealing. The stranger the context, the cooler and more hip Jones seems to be- without even seeming to try (see his cameo in Tim Burton’s 1996 film Mars Attacks!). His ability to poke fun at his own iconography, hamming it up on various music videos with cheeky smiles and over the top enthusiasm just adds to legend, and illustrates how rare it is for newer artists to have this endearing trait. This is never more apparent than in his high-rotation video covering Prince’s ‘Kiss’ that he did with The Art of Noise in 1987. This success was again replicated with 2000’s aptly titled ‘Sex Bomb,’ which saw Jones once again ascend the UK charts to number 3.

The ability to take chances and work on a variety of projects keeps Jones current and applicable. The more off the wall the opportunity, the seemingly better he seems to be at not just making it good but owning it. While many artists have collaborated with a younger talent to prove that they are still relevant and hip (I am looking at you, my beloved Madge), it often looks forced and a wee bit desperate- completely inorganic, which never works for creating any sort of authentic believability. Wacky collaborations have been a part of the Jones repertoire from the start and are a staple for keeping him interesting. Whether it’s getting Fugee Wyclef Jean to produce an album (as he did in 2002 with his release Mr. Jones) or doing an intelligent, fun and inspired cover of the Talking Heads ‘Burning Down The House’ with The Cardigans (a video you must see to fully appreciate), Sir Tom seems to not fear anything. His most recent turn as a judge of the UK’s talent show The Voice showcases this to the extreme. While the other judges are for the most part an ever-changing parade, he is a constant, a great parallel to his permanence on the music scene. While fellow panelist will.i.am often seems to go out of his way to be funny or outrageous, Jones just takes it all in. After being on Fantasy Island, surely nothing else will ever come close to shocking you. We can all hope to have such casual confidence, style and raw sex appeal at any age, let alone to radiate it in such a tangible manner as one looks down the barrel of having eight decades under their belt. A huge huge Happy Birthday to you, Sir Tom. Your ability to do the unusual is amazing- and an intrinsic part of your magic. I mean this from the bottom of my heart- with my undies firmly still on.

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