Aphex Twin Albums From Worst To Best
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!”
The Tuss - Rushup Edge (2007)
Despite Richard D. James' laundry list of jumbled aliases, The Tuss is the only true red-headed stepchild of the bunch. Though anyone familiar with the project will attest that his decision to essentially go "anonymous" on this material isn't a matter of quality control (there's really no obvious explanation, truth be told), as some of the gnarled, acid-drenched production work on Rushup Edge is among his best in the genre. "Synthacon 9" and "Last Rushup 10" can wiggle and writhe on the dancefloor as well as anything from AFX's Analord series, and the malevolent "Death Fuck" bests some of Drukqs' wankier moments, while simultaneously providing Death Grips' twisted experimental hip-hop with its unwitting spiritual predecessor. In the interest of absolute honesty, however, I should say that both Tuss records will ultimately be most interesting to the insatiable RDJ fans who have already exhausted the entirety of his known catalog. Rushup Edge is something of a novelty record for Aphex Twin completists, but perhaps unsurprisingly, even James' less interesting releases still offer plenty of uncanny music to try to wrap your head around.
Aphex Twin - Drukqs (2001)
Every successful artist has to have an album like Drukqs in their discography, don't they? The over-ambitious double-album it is, RDJ's fifth studio record gorges itself on ideas, moods, genres, and the sheer unstoppable genius of the guy who created it. If ever Aphex Twin had a record that could be described as "pompous," Drukqs would be the one. Its 30-song tracklist seems daunting at first glance, but once you actually give the whole thing a spin do you realize exactly how insurmountable it is -- each of the two discs is longer than even the extended version of Richard D. James Album, and are jam packed with far less friendly, far more hyperactive music. Perhaps only matched by the downright massive Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, which clocks in around two and a half hours, Drukqs is an album that demands your undivided attention for such a long time that you have no choice but to be sucked into its universe. The difference here is that this is a largely unwelcoming and abrasive environment, and it can quite understandably become taxing on the senses.
But, of course, there is pure Aphex Twin magic coursing through the veins of this coal-black, 100-minute behemoth. The steely drum machine blasts of "Cock/Ver10," "54 Cymru Beats," and "Meltphace 6" use classic jungle and drum & bass tropes to give new meaning to the word "whiplash," and always with a dash of haunted dissonance; bewitching interludes are just as memorable here, too, like the hazy bounce of "Bbydhyonchord" and gorgeous acoustic pieces "Btoum-Roumada" or "Penty Harmonium"; and then there are the likes of "Gwely Mernans" and "Bit4," disquieting plumes of ominous ambience James unleashes into our bones. And one can't really talk about Drukqs without mentioning "Avril 14th," a candidly simplistic piano piece that somehow made it onto such a menacing and disjointed album in one piece. At the risk of hyperbole, I will say that the world is a better place because of the quietly beautiful existence of "Avril 14th," and that alone is a valid reason to sing the praises of the oft-maligned Drukqs.
Polygon Window - Surfing on Sine Waves (1993)
Warp Records became interested in the music of Richard D. James following the release of Aphex Twin's ethereal and mystifying Selected Ambient Works 85-92, so it's interesting that their first project together was Surfing on Sine Waves, the gritty, relatively straightforward lone album credited to Polygon Window. The first studio album and second installment in Warp's seminal Artificial Intelligence series (an early proponent for the IDM, a.k.a. Intelligent Dance Music, genre), RDJ's 11-track LP is perhaps his most overtly vintage-sounding, as it relies heavily on early sci-fi and rave tropes. And yet there is something in the rubbery 303 sequences of anxious tunes like "Untitled," or shuddering bangers "Supremacy II" and "Quixote," that charms you with its raw determination. It also doesn't hurt that Surfing on Sine Waves has a couple of veritable aces packed into its deck -- "Portreath Harbor" and "Polygon Window" are two fantastic RDJ productions no matter what alias they fall under, and you could easily convince me breathy album closer "Quino-Phec" was pulled from a Selected Ambient Works session. Suffice it to say that Surfing on Sine Waves might be best suited for aging electronic music purists or those curious about such sounds, but in that regard, it's a proper knock-out.
Caustic Window - Caustic Window (2014)
I'll be straight with you: Caustic Window landing at number seven on this list is slightly misleading. While I did write approximately 1500 words extolling the virtues of this "lost" classic the day it was released, I am not entirely certain that it is the seventh best record released by Richard D. James. Unquestionably, I think "Flutey," "Fingertrips," "Squidge In the Fridge," "Fingry" and "101 Rainbows Ambient Mix" are stone-cold classics on par with much of the producer's early work, and it is utterly amazing that, after existing in limbo for 20 or so years, Caustic Window was finally brought into the light of day. (That said, there are a few less than tantalizing duds in the tracklist that probably wouldn't have been missed if left on a dusty shelf.) But the reason this mythic record lands as high as it does on my list is simple: The Kickstarter campaign and outpouring of supportive fans that made Caustic Window's release possible is a massive reason why Aphex Twin emerged from obscurity. We are currently at the start of what could very well be the second coming of one of the most important voices in electronic music (perhaps music in general), and we owe much of that to this impossibly rare collection of vintage techno and acid productions. Which brings me to our next record...
Aphex Twin - Syro (2014)
It's admittedly difficult to rank an album as new as Syro in any sort of definitive list, let alone one which claims to arrange a discography spanning 22-plus years in a countdown to the artist's best record. That said, I don't think that what is effectively Aphex Twin's comeback album will be hailed as his finest work some years from now, but Syro is nonetheless a first-class document of impeccably arranged, uncompromising electronic music in his wholly inimitable style. Richard D. James' latest LP makes hands-on analog craftsmanship sound like a task only conquerable by neurosurgeons and molecular biologists -- even if you could somehow conceive of the mercurial, funk-laced bassline in "XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix]," do you think you have the patience, precision, and ability to program all 10 and a half minutes of it into an ARP 2500? Maybe "s950tx16wasr10 [163.97][earth portal mix]" sounds to some like a typically bonkers cut of sub-loaded jungle, but in the flurry of dismantled Amen breaks and oversized bass drops, just try to decipher which elements are recordings of physical instruments and which are sly digital manipulations. Syro is the work of an unparalleled master producer, but what's perhaps the record's greatest feat is that it used years-old music to make Aphex Twin -- a borderline recluse who had been silent for seven years -- the most widely discussed artist of 2014. And it did so without sounding like he ever missed a beat.
AFX - Chosen Lords (2006)
Here's where our rules about what separates a compilation from a proper full-length record get a little dicey, as Chosen Lords is essentially an album of previously released material. But for those of you splitting hairs with me at home, allow me to elaborate. The Analord series, which gives Chosen Lords its 10 boisterous productions, was sporadically issued at the whim of Rephlex with little or no warning, is difficult to obtain in its entirety (the box set currently goes for around $1,000), and is available only on vinyl. So not only was Chosen Lords necessary as a condensed version of AFX's 42-track, three-and-a-half-hour acid opus, it was also the only way to hear the music on a non-vinyl format. And, yes, its press materials stated verbatim, "AFX himself has distilled the tunes into a cohesive album, as it was intended to be heard." This was the closest thing the world could get to a proper Richard D. James full-length five years after Drukqs.
As the press release goes on to detail, Chosen Lords offers 10 productions that are "among his very best classics." I'm not saying you can put "Klopjob," "Reunion 2," and "PWSteal.Ldpinch.D" up against "Girl/Boy Song," "We Are the Music Makers," or "Flim," but as far as RDJ's acid-focused techno is concerned, this whole tracklist is untouchably stellar. "Fenix Funk 5" jumps out of the gate with its excitable robo-funk, "Crying in Your Face" is masterful electro with a slyly emotive edge, and AFX makes quick work of synthesizing his ambient proclivities and dancefloor intentions on cuts like "Boxing Day" and "Pitcard." And if it's strictly some Aphex acid you're looking for, you can do no better than "Cilonen"'s fidgety sequences and the striped-down hardware workout on his aptly titled "Batine Acid." Chosen Lords is an ideal starting point for anyone looking to dig into the more esoteric ends of Richard D. James' unmanageable catalog.
Aphex Twin - ...I Care Because You Do (1995)
For most people, ...I Care Because You Do is the other Aphex Twin album, the awkward middle child between Selected Ambient Works Vol. II and Richard D. James Album, and in some ways, they're right. This 12-track record was a sort of adolescent growth spurt for RDJ, insomuch that it found him eschewing conventional genres and production methods to focus on less traditional forms of electronic music. James was beginning to lose interest in making tracks with synths, drum machines, and other physical instruments, perhaps because he felt confined at the time by their inherent limitations. He hadn't yet moved on to computer-based production, though, so some of ...I Care Because You Do is the sound of a budding genius trying to break free from the confines he'd grown tired of. Though it was largely recorded around the same time as SAW II and Surfing on Sine Waves, Aphex Twin's third official album zooms in closer to the man behind the machines, which might go towards explaining why it's the first of his releases to feature an image of his face on the cover.
Starting with the crunchy broken beats of "Acrid Avid Jam Shred" and closing out on "Next Heap With"'s anthemically dour orchestration, the 12-track, hour-long LP deals as much with strange sublimity as it does blistering noise and haunted electronics. The relentless "Come on You Slags" and brutalizing "Ventolin" hold their own up against rough-edged beauties like "Mookid" and "Wax the Nip," but few can compare to the vision that is "Alberto Balsalm." The song hints at the future of Aphex Twin perhaps more so than RDJ's infatuation with string arrangements across ...I Care Because You Do, as it captures the carefree romanticism, affable musicality, and otherworldly sound design that Richard D. James Album was built on. Even if this album is something of an awkward middle child, its frequent bursts of confidence and ingenuity make it a phase worth revisiting as much as the matured eras that followed.
Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works Vol. II (1994)
To the same extent that Selected Ambient Works Vol. II is a canonical treasure, it is also a relic, a pitch-perfect antithesis to the ideologies of our digitally dependent culture circa now. This is an album that simply would not exist in 2014 the same way it did in 1994. Aphex Twin's second official studio album is a 23-song (25 in the UK) meditation on largely beatless electronic music spread over two and a half hours -- all of which was made widely available on vinyl, CD, and cassette 20 years ago. We might be lucky to have a record like SAW II released onto iTunes now, but would any of us give it the time and attention it deserved? Or would we all skim over the first few songs on SoundCloud, realize we didn't have enough time to hear the whole thing and catch up on our Netflix, and then leave it to sit unheard on a perpetually open tab in our browsers?
There were no singles or music videos used to promote Aphex Twin's sophomore LP when it was first issued; if releasing labels Warp and Sire tried that now, chances are most of us wouldn't discover the striking glacial drift of its third "Untitled" track (nicknamed "Rhubarb") or the soft-sweeping pads which glide delicately over the cavernous patter in "Blue Calx." (Unfortunately, there are still plenty of people who haven't, and probably wouldn't be interested unless they were getting a massage, or something.) So let's use this time to thank our lucky stars that Richard D. James happened to get this jaw-dropping collection of patient and considered productions out into the world before the music industry had a chance to entirely implode on itself. Selected Ambient Works Vol. II is both literally and conceptually of an entirely alien time and place, a genuine masterpiece that is incapable of tarnishing no matter how drastically the world around it changes.
Aphex Twin - Richard D. James Album (1996)
Here's the one that absolutely blew everything wide open for a precocious 25-year-old artist from Cornwall, England. Richard D. James Album could've been called just about anything, but it makes perfect sense that the producer named it after himself. RDJ's fourth studio LP as Aphex Twin still sounds like his most personable and uniquely varied release to date, like the realistic audio equivalent of the randomly firing synapses, twisted jokes, curious musings, and ingenious ideas at work inside the head on its front cover. And it's just as prone to drastic changes in mood, too -- the elfish and spirited "Fingerbib" transitioning into "Carn Marth"'s rambunctious, squalling beats feels like the difference between having two beers and 10. Aphex Twin started experimenting more with the use of vocals on RDJ Album, which added another strangely human touch to songs like "To Cure a Weakling Child" and "Milkman" (a joyously perverse bonus track popularized by the album's non-UK releases). It'd be a stretch to say this was an album "about" the man called Richard D. James, but it's probably as close to one as we're likely to get.
James used computers and software to advance the sounds of his music on Richard D. James Album, but they also allowed him to better articulate the compositional complexities that were simply impossible with real machines. This includes drum programming, sample manipulation, instrument creation, and other digital intricacies that would've been otherwise unthinkable without computers. In this way, Aphex Twin truly came into his own as an unparalleled producer, but this wouldn't have made such an impact had he not also proven himself to be a musical mastermind with the ear for melody and harmonic sensibilities of a classical composer. There is no other record in the world that could rightly be compared to Richard D. James Album, and when listening through a tracklist that sounds as mind-boggling and lovable as when it first appeared 18 years ago, it seems impossible that there will ever be.
Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)
Isn't it ironic that an artist renowned for constantly innovating throughout his career actually released his strongest, most unfading, most important album at the very beginning of it all? I know that I hemmed and hawed a bit about making lists and quantifying genius leading up to this point, but if you were to track me down 10 years from now and ask me which Aphex Twin record I thought was his ultimate best, I would still say, "Richard D. James' debut LP, Selected Ambient Works 85-92, is the purest and finest example of his brilliant musical mind." It is a wholly effortless recording unfettered by context, expectations, or time, and within that spacious place, it flourishes on its own terms in an almost naive way.
Despite their simplistic arrangements and rough home recordings, each of the album's 13 productions sound blemishless, as all moments of accidental distortion or sudden bursts of volume only go to remind you that there was indeed a person operating those machines. (And even he was too wrapped up in it all to care much about keeping his levels out of the red.) Crystalline and angelic, "Xtal" somehow turns synthetic pan flutes, simplistic drum machine patterns, and pillowy vocal coos into the aural manifestation of an underwater dreamscape. All nine minutes of "Tha" are based around the same ambling bassline and hypnotically unhinged rhythms, but it takes little more than a gauzy field recording, heavenly synth pads, and RDJ's on-the-fly mixing touches to breathe transcendent energy in such a seemingly basic arrangement. The glassy layers of soft-focus analog tones in "i" hint at SAW II's majestic austerity, giving us only a minute-long glimpse before launching into mysterious acid jams ("Green Calx"), celestial ambient-techno ("Heliosphan"), eerily formless compositions ("Schottkey 7th Path"), and the rest of Aphex Twin's unprecedented genre experiments.
In all honesty, Selected Ambient Works 85-92 isn't an album that transformed electronic music -- James was borrowing stylistic structures and aesthetics from the house and techno greats in Chicago and Detroit, so its enduring vitality springs from the personal touches the music is imbued with. This was the first full-length document of a singular voice, and even across a record which was supposedly compiled from songs recorded over a seven-year timeframe, Aphex Twin's sound is as consistently unmistakable as ever. That clarity of vision is what makes all 13 of these tracks feel timeless even now, despite the fact that they in many ways reference vintage genres that have long waxed and waned in popularity. Because SAW 85-92 is first and foremost music conceived by the untouched mind of a peerless artist, a person whose signature ways with melody, harmony, rhythm, arrangement, and space are the reasons why we're still talking about him today. The fact that Richard D. James happened to write these songs around house, techno, acid, and ambient sounds is utterly secondary.