The Dignity Of Labour (Parts 1–4) – The Human League (1979) Standalone single/EP
Before the Number 1 success of Don’t You Want Me Baby, The Human League were anything but pop. As four young men with a Roland System 100 and a passion for the Space Race, they were Sheffield’s definitive indie offering. This, a fifteen-minute instrumental synth-suite in four movements, is their magnum opus. An odyssey in analog synthnesiser music, The Dignity Of Labour (titled as though it were some Fascist affectation) tells the story of USSR pilot Yuri Gagarin on his pioneering space flight of April 12, 1961. Part 1 is a bounding sequence of melodic bleeps that tells of miners underground in Russia, digging up the coal to make steel; part 2, is a jagged, metallic torrent of electronic noises, detailing the construction of spaceship Vostok 1; part 3 is a sweeping, futuristic tribute to cosmonaut Gagarin; and part 4 is both a soundtrack to the lifelessness of space from the floating quiet of orbit, and also an ode to early European electronic music, notably that of the Telharmonium and Theramin. This is a heartbreakingly perfect work of post-punk and an utterly ethereal experience to be missed by no one. If you’re particularly interested, the 12” EP originally came packaged with a flexi-disc, which included an artsy discussion by the band as to their musical intentions and sociopolitical pretences (and it’s included it on the playlist below).
Zoolook – Jean-Michel Jarre (1984) Track from the album Zoolook
From the man behind prog-synth masterworks Oxygène and Équinoxe comes a comparably poppy offering in the form of the crazy Zoolook, a record that, even today, sounds ahead of its time. The track opens with a diced vocal sample from Laurie Anderson, underpinning the boing of Jarre’s toy-like synths for the duration. Her distinctly oscillatory patter recalls the similarly strange vocal bends of her own surprise hit, 1981’s O Superman, an eight-minute avant-garde recording featuring the structureless, druggy oddity Walk The Dog on its flipside. Zoolook’s bridge is its best musical feature, with a chord progression that wanders unexpectedly into the sharp keys. Also worth seeing is the sinister video, which features, amongst other things, killer toy robots.
Fingerbib – Aphex Twin (1996) Track from the album Richard D. James Album
That Aphex Twin’s Fingerbib is a soft, soothing synth ditty surprises me, especially for an artist so synonymous with aggressive production techniques. Richard D. James’ relentlessly penetrative Warp pulses are absent here, and instead he embraces a warm, analog sound, complete with background hiss, whose sweet, wobbling melodies tug the heartstrings, as opposed to other moments in his discography that instead promote an insane, spasmodic listener response (4, Yellow Calx etc). Fingerbib is completely at odds with the perverted glare of the LP’s cover art and with the mad beats bookending it – it is its own serene slice of escapist chill in both a wider discography and even, an entire decade that might otherwise oppose it.
Dance Yrself Clean – LCD Soundsystem (2011) Track from the album This Is Happening
The first LCD Soundsystem song I ever heard, Dance Yrself Clean is all the better for knowing something about the playful nostalgia of James Murphy and co. It’s the little things: the quiet mastering at the start that forces the listener to turn up the volume, only for the track to double in decibels at 3:05; the tinny Casio VL-Tone that zips about in the undercurrent; Murphy’s untrained falsetto and ambiguous lyrics. Similarly adventurous is the 8:55 runtime here, though, as any LCD Soundsystem fan will tell you, that’s normal for this band and, oddly, it doesn’t drag – the throbbing, randomised saw-waves and Pixies-indebtted volume dynamics mesh together to synthesise the perfect indie-disco thumper, a superfluous supernova of modern electronica.
Tom’s Diner – Giogio Moroder feat. Britney Spears (2015) Single from the album Déjà Vu
When I found out earlier today that this cover existed, there was trepidation. I’m no fan of the somewhat well-liked DNA remix of Suzanne Vega’s a cappella track; I never liked the way that Vega’s folksy observations got the trip-hop treatment. What, I mused pessimistically, has Moroder done now? The answer is that he has reminded us once again who rules the roost in the world of electronic music. Moroder’s throbbing bass-line is immediately recognisable as his own, his Italo-disco sensibilities almost certainly responsible for the slightly autotuned harmonies and faux-string textures. And, as if by magic, we’re reminded that Britney Spears can sing, as she provides that timelessly sexy and dancefloor-friendly surreptitiousness that defined Baby, One More Time.