As any dyed-in-the-wool Aphex Twin fan worth their weight in trivia answers will tell you, there’s really no such thing as a bad album written by Richard D. James. Sure, some are better than others, and there are probably some you don’t even like that much. But a bad record from modern electronic music’s preeminent producer is like Bigfoot — even if it happens to be real, no sane person will actually believe it exists. This creates a serious problem when making a “Worst To Best” list of Aphex Twin albums, especially considering how many vastly different styles and genres the multi-talented UK artist works with. Can you really measure an otherworldly ambient classic with the same ruler as a colicky, noodling record of acid experiments? I’m not entirely sure that you can, but I’ve nonetheless gone ahead and done my best.
Combing through the discography of Richard D. James is a complicated and seemingly endless task, as he has some 57 or so releases credited to almost half as many aliases. Though he is rumored to have started making music from the age of 12, the artist’s official debut came in 1991 with the release of a spritely four-track 12″ called Analogue Bubblebath, the breezy, rave-ready title track of which is still considered by some to be his finest work. James only continued to issue new material with increasing regularity from that point on, and eventually compiled a selection of unreleased music said to have been recorded over a seven year span — between the ages of 14 and 21, or so the known myth-maker would have you believe — for his first album. On February 12, 1992, a sub-label of Belgium’s R&S Records, called Apollo, issued the 13-track, 74-minute Selected Ambient Works 85-92, effectively setting Aphex Twin down the path to becoming the most widely recognizable name (and face) in all of electronic music.
But the proliferation of Aphex Twin took its time, and he was a far too restless genius to stay in one musical place for very long. Roughly a year after SAW 85-92, James released his first album with the then-Sheffield-based record label Warp. Surfing On Sine Waves was credited to the alias Polygon Window, and found James returning to some of the harsher, acid-focused sound palettes from his EPs and 12″s amidst his usual melodic wizardry. It didn’t exactly sound like a proper follow-up to the inaugural Aphex Twin LP, but history proves that thinking about James’ release schedule in any linear fashion is ultimately fruitless; not only are his songs written in non-specific recording sessions, they’re also unveiled piecemeal whenever the producer decides to group them with other tracks cherry-picked from his archives. A song that is brand-new to the public, even one you might call “forward-thinking” or “futuristic,” could very well have been recorded half a decade ago. Idiosyncrasies like this are key to understanding the convoluted catalog of Richard D. James.
The latter part of the ’90s could well be considered Aphex Twin’s pinnacle, the time period when he did some of his most important and widely recognized work. This is the era when James released the music that made him a cultural fixture: the monolithic and stunning Selected Ambient Works Vol. II in 1994, the evolutionary deep cuts of …I Care Because You Do in 1995, and in 1996, a record that first introduced the artist’s playfully sinister visage into our collective consciousness, Aphex Twin’s iconic Richard D. James Album. Despite your thoughts on which of his releases is the most important for RDJ’s career or electronic music at large, it was unquestionably the eponymous LP that launched him as the poster boy for “The Future Of Electronic Music,” which was something of a double-edged sword for the generally reclusive artist. Yes, Richard D. James Album was light on proper singles (though a handful of its bubbly and affable songs did eventually find their way into world-wide advertising), but the record is essentially what set the stage for Aphex Twin’s most well-known music and — subsequently — his retreat back into obscurity.
Inextricably linked to their artwork and Chris Cunningham-directed music videos, “Come to Daddy” (1997) and “Windowlicker” (1999) are the two songs most people think of when they hear the name Aphex Twin. (Well, to be honest, they’re probably remembering the unnervingly strange, bizarrely funny, and borderline terrifying videos more than the actual music — save for that “I want your soul!” part.) But the productions themselves were unusual for RDJ’s repertoire, insomuch that, despite sounding like the antithesis to pop music, they somehow distilled his unconventional methods into two wildly different sounds that resonated across the cultural zeitgeist. Whether viewers and listeners were treating his music like the Holy Grail or just a freakish ephemeral curiosity didn’t really matter; they were still paying attention, and they wanted to know who was behind it all and when they could get more. And maybe that surge of popular interest can go towards explaining what happened after Y2K, when Aphex Twin started giving the masses what they didn’t want in lethal doses.
The 2000s was a decade of excess for Richard D. James, and in a way that felt (and sounded) like he was giving the middle finger to anyone jonesing for the next “Come To Daddy,” “Windowlicker,” or Richard D. James Album. Aphex Twin’s music had certainly delved deep into dark, abrasive sounds before, but 2001’s divisive double-disc album, Drukqs, scraped from the dregs of jungle, acid, and IDM for its ghastly smears of impenetrable electronics. The tracklist boasted 30 songs spread over 100 minutes, as if James was daring us to try to find another MTV-ready single smothered underneath his heap of searing breakbeats and haunted soundscapes. Then came the equally unwieldy Analord series. Over the course of eleven 12″s released in 2005 via his own Rephlex label, the veteran artist indulged in one of his first loves, hardware-crafted acid-techno, under his lesser-known AFX moniker. In 2006, highlights from that string of records were eventually compiled onto the 10-track Chosen Lords, a CD-only album (remember those?) that was technically a compilation even though its creator insisted it was the full-length he had always planned to release. Only adding to the convolution, James was also working in secret on another acid-focused project, called The Tuss. 2007’s Confederation Trough EP and the Rushup Edge “mini-album” are both credited to producers Brian and Karen Tregaskin, and though the information isn’t 100% confirmed, both aliases are believed to belong only to RDJ. This was obviously an artist who wanted to have his cake and eat it, too — that is, remain ceaselessly prolific while also keeping his time in the spotlight to, if not zero, an absolute bare minimum.
And then, as if he got his wish, Richard D. James basically disappeared. For what seemed like the first time since his Analogue Bubblebath EP dropped in 1991, not a single new track credited to Aphex Twin, or any of his many pseudonyms, saw the light of day. The most we’d hear from James during those seven years was poor-quality live footage of what fans speculated to be unreleased material the artist was dropping in his DJ sets, as well as plenty of rumors and speculation. This persisted until 2014, and, well, if you’re still reading this, I probably don’t have to tell you much about the crowd-sourced release of the “lost” Caustic Window LP or Aphex Twin’s first official studio album in 13 years, Syro. Which brings us back to this list, an exercise in quantifying 10 distinctive transmissions of musical genius against each other. (Honestly, this list would be more accurately titled “Aphex Twin Albums from Great To Greatest,” but alas.) The entirety of Richard D. James’ full-length discography is represented here, save for the belated compilations (i.e. Classics) and short-form releases (i.e., On, Donkey Rhubarb, Hangable Auto Bulb), and all are ranked on the merits of their individual songs, each record as a whole, and their cultural importance at large. Now, as RDJ himself would put it, “Come on you slags, let’s have some Aphex acid!”
Start the Countdown here.