68: Chemical Brothers – Setting Sun (1996)
“Setting Sun” shouldn’t have worked. Certainly by 1996 there was a precedent for psychedelic electronic dance music burbling its way into the mainstream on occasion, but this was different. The Chemical Brothers had just begun to scratch the surface of success with “Block Rocking Beats”, the first single from the same album, Dig Your Own Hole. That track was far more accessible and its appeal was understandable even if it wasn’t your traditional pop dance music. But “Setting Sun” had a tighter, more experimental percussion loop. It smashed and banged and collapsed over and over again. The funky guitar lick was replaced here with a see-saw of winding guitar sounds which oscillated repeatedly up and down at the same rhythm like a noisy electric yo-yo. Just a few bars into the track when it’s already feeling far outside the reach of your typical dance floor, a blinding synth screech falls repeatedly at half-time. This cacophony of loops – familiar territory for the Chemical Brothers and their original fans – served as the backdrop for a vocal from one half of Oasis – Noel Gallagher. Oasis were also at the top of their game at this time but can it be argued that he alone could have propelled such a bizarrely groove-free dance track to the #1 spot on the UK singles chart? Doubtful. Something else was going on.
Electronic dance music was stagnating in North America. Most of the clubs were filled with the same thumping bass line and hi-hat, soul vocals lazily decorated house music in a formulaic and predictable fashion. Meanwhile in the UK, ever the birthing ground for extremism in music, a whole new era of sampling and dialing up the mixer dashboard was occurring with groups like the Chemical Brothers, Underworld and Fatboy Slim. The rave scene was exploding as an alternative to mainstream clubs and the Chemical Brothers seemed to be the first to seize the opportunity to tap into that excitement. They crossed over into the mainstream and invited popular vocalists to guest on some shockingly innovative sounds. Having poked through with the success of their previous album and now a previous hit single, they were keen to push things a little further. The Guardian would later call “Setting Sun” one of the “most experimental and sonically extreme hits of the 90s”.
It wasn’t that “Setting Sun” was a great track – it was actually one of the least interesting on the entire album. What was important about “Setting Sun” was that it broke new ground, showed the world new possibilities of where electronic music could go and if nothing else, dropped a bomb on your favourite club’s sound system long enough for you to go get a drink before Toni Braxton or N-Joi came on again. – Darryl G. Wright
67: Daft Punk – Da Funk (1995)
“Da Funk” is one of the rare instrumentals that elicits stadium-wide sing-alongs. It even sounds like the synth sample is saying “wow” over and over again, like Daft Punk knew from the moment they crafted it, they had make head-knocking perfection.
Daft Punk’s early years are a fascinating study in a group on the cusp of pop brilliance, but having too much fun with sleaze and grit to make the jump. The absurdly brutal “Rollin’ & Scratchin’” (B-side to “Da Funk”) was the blueprint that noise-dance madmen like Justice and Gesaffelstein would eventually adhere to thanks to its all-out aural assault. But “Da Funk” struck a neater balance. Outside of that sneaky synth line, everything else in the song seems choppy and crunchy, like it was feed through a woodchipper. And from those pieces, the French duo could have created about three or four bangers. Instead, they Voltroned them together.
The drum sample is simple, but smooth. Thomas Bangalter revealed that “Da Funk” was born out of copious amounts of West Coast G-Funk, and the smooth spirit of Warren G certainly invades the drums. The stabbing synth in the background could have been a dancefloor classic all its own, properly invoking the mesmerizing feeling of watching strobe lights while on illicit substances. And of course there’s the glorious half-way point where that insidiously catchy and snaking keyboard line rises from the ether, turning the entire song on its head. Up until then, “Da Funk” was, well, a funk song. But Daft Punk morph it into head-stomping acid house before bringing that rubbery keyboard back into the fold.
The dog-mask-featuring, Spike Jonze directed video accompanying “Da Funk” became a ‘90s staple unto itself, but it apparently didn’t mean much to the band. “There’s no story. It is just a man-dog walking with a ghetto-blaster in New York. The rest is not meant to say anything,” explained Bangalter. And the song, in the best way, is kind of like that. Effortlessly, meaninglessly cool. Cool for the sake of coolness. Not a bad way to get introduced to everybody’s favorite robots. – Nathan Stevens