The 10 Best Chemical Brothers Songs

David Tonge

The 10 Best Chemical Brothers Songs

David Tonge

Twenty years ago, in the last week of June 1995, the Chemical Brothers released their debut album, Exit Planet Dust, and turned the strong electronic-dance vanguard of their early singles into something that the mainstream press couldn’t ignore. And two full decades after next-big-thing hype, festival-headliner status, trend-setting, trend-ducking, left-field experiments, crowdpleasing hits, cult-classic soundtracks, and deep returns to their roots, they’re still finding new angles. Their new album, Born in the Echoes, came out last week, and it sounds like one of those alternate-universe B-sides records where all their ideas over the years have crossed wires and sparked some sort of stylistic time paradox.

There’s St. Vincent Annie Clark humming ghostly harmonies over jittery electro-funk on “Under Neon Lights” like a post-electroclash mutation of their Surrender acid house. There’s Q-Tip’s turn on “Go” that sounds both livelier and more to-the-point than his appearance on “Galvanize,” as though Push The Button gained more from the DFA than just a pretty good remix of “The Boxer.” There’s Beck, who hasn’t sounded this smooth on a dance track as upbeat as “Wide Open” since Midnite Vultures — though his latter-day sincerity puts him a lot closer to a cheerier version of “Out Of Control” than a “Sexx Laws” where ’99 is concerned. And oh hey, right in the middle of the record, there’s “I’ll See You There,” which sounds straight-up like a long-lost cousin of their kit-bashing big-beat singles from their early ’95-’97 flush of fame. It’s the first Chemical Brothers record that goes forward by looking back, not just at their influences but themselves.

The catch is that they’ve dealt with such a perpetually young sound that fits so well in their portfolio that any rearview-mirror nostalgia gets thrown by the adjacent mirror where they look at themselves, and we wind up with an endlessly recursive echo of ideas and feedback that seems like, well, something that sounds the way this looks. That’s one of their strengths, really; Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons are masters of synthesis in a way that fits their coming of age in the thick of Manchester’s Haçienda-centered ’80s and ’90s, a shared love for Public Enemy and New Order and Cabaret Voltaire and an irrepressible urge to make all those threads connect. Their circa-’92 emergence on the DJ circuit postdated the UK’s Second Summer Of Love heyday but gave them a context in which to thrive, where the boundaries of what constituted dance music and the routes to negotiate through it — hip-hop, hardcore, jungle, acid, electro, house, Krautrock, and all points in between — simply gave them more opportunities for weird new routes.

That drive eventually put them smack in the middle of The Nineties™, the outlandish caricatured space that turned rave into Electronica and slotted the Chems as Big Beat, an unsubtle party music for unsubtle people in an unsubtle time. That they’ve persisted long past the kitschy late-’90s Matrix-soundtrack zeitgeist into EDM elder-statesmen status hints at their enduring resonance, but it also reveals that they’ve been able to reconcile the idea of techno and its offspring genres as a contemporary sort of roots music that thinks about the future in the terms of the past — and vice versa. Born In The Echoes sounds excellent on its own, but it’s that much more compelling when you take stock of the places it came from. So here are 10 of the best tracks that got the Chemical Brothers up to this high point.

10. “Chemical Beats” (from Fourteenth Century Sky EP, 1994; also appears on Exit Planet Dust, 1995)

As good a candidate as any for an early signature track — hell, it’s where they turned to when they were duly informed that the original Dust Brothers were still a going concern and weren’t happy about a couple of acid house upstarts ganking their name. A headknocking peak of Exit Planet Dust’s deftly mixed EPs-and-new-stuff structure, “Chemical Beats” is even more potent in its previous release on 1994’s Fourteenth Century Sky EP, all five and a half minutes standing on its own as a heightened dose of warped funk. It’s surprisingly simple at its core, but it works in how those parts are juxtaposed: a 303 squiggle laid out like a wah-wah riff, the percussive blend of rock-solid funk breaks and a pupil-dilating tick-tock cowbell, a diamond-cutting synth wail lifted from Ruffhouse alt-rap cult favorites The Goats, and a multitracked, ghostly “unh!” keeping that momentum going berserk. On a more trivial note, the EP version is also only time on record, contrary to “Setting Sun”/”Let Forever Be” impressions, that they actually sampled the Beatles — and it’s not even a piece of music, but the first three words from the “take this, brother, may it serve you well” soundbite from “Revolution #9.” Even in the truncated LP version that omits its boiling intro and cuts right to the chase, it’ll knock you for a loop.

09. “Song To The Siren” (white label single, 1992; also appears on Exit Planet Dust, 1995)

The first track Rowlands and Simons put together to bolster their DJ repertoire of instrumental hip-hop and breakbeat tracks samples both This Mortal Coil and Dead Can Dance. That they could integrate two acts sprung from the ranks of ’80s ethereal wave into a club banger is proof they had more than a touch of the weird about them — but then again, it’s kind of hard not to make a club banger when it’s laid out over drum breaks like these. It’s a remarkable pastiche of early influence, the vast majority of which comes from the rave-era heyday of the late ’80s; there are also pieces of Meat Beat Manifesto, Coldcut, and Mantronix in this track’s DNA. But it still sounded deliriously new and different woven into the fabric of their ’95 debut, a side effect of its relatively downtempo pace being considered too slow for the tastes of most circa ’92 hardcore techno enthusiasts. Maybe it’s just simple enough to have aged well more easily; acid-influenced hip-hop (or vice-versa) was never really ubiquitous enough to be date-stamped, and everything just clicks from the get-go. Even if it’s just the quavering vocal and all those buzzers that really make it stand out (including the Mantronix “King Of The Beats” siren that Dilla would turn into a signature), it’s a hell of an opening salvo.

08. “Escape Velocity” (from Further, 2010)

After the Chems’ genre-scrambling tendencies started to get the best of them mid-aughts — valiantly enough on 2005’s Push The Button, but a lurching mess by ’07 effort We Are The Night — everybody but the most optimistic hardcore fans probably felt safe in relegating them to the same diminishing-returns pile as the Prodigy and Fatboy Slim. That made Further such a remarkable surprise: Not only was it a great album, easily their best since Dig Your Own Hole, it was a different album. This was an evolution that put their rock-crossover moves and hook-heavy accessibility in the background so Tom and Ed could show off a more nuanced touch with their acid house lineage. Not that it was some kind of chill-out record; it was more of a zone-out record, with an opening one-two that didn’t even really bring in a beat for nearly five minutes — at which point it brought in all the beats. The charging, brain-twisting sprint that followed the staging-lights countdown of opener “Snow,” “Escape Velocity” pulls off more breathtaking force in twelve minutes than most on-wax dance acts are usually capable of outside the mass-moving expanse of a festival crowd. And it does so with a drive that fuses rise-and-fall dynamics with a sound lab’s worth of dance music history, decades of accumulated influence worked into contemporary motion. The old-school analog synths hint back at the prehistory of techno, toying with vintage prog and synthpop arpeggios, but melding them to a rhythmic force that simultaneously pulls off arena-trance wait-for-the-drop anticipation, Krautrock machine-beat precision, and the delirious euphoric release of Hi-NRG.

07. “It Began In Afrika” (single, 2001; also appears on Come With Us, 2002)

According to the 1974 Jim Ingram track that gave this single its authoritative, pulsing refrain, the “it” in question is the very idea of the beat itself, one person’s expression of awe at the surroundings of the world manifested in a rhythm. “It was a very simple beat at first,” the original Ingram song’s narration goes, “and then, as my man’s understanding of his environment grew, so did his expression of his emotions through mankind’s first drum.” That explanation’s more implicit in the music than explicit in words on “It Began In Afrika,” which starts out with an insistent, two-ton synthesized 4/4 kick and layers on enough percussive elements to sustain an entire album’s worth of breaks. Congas, hi-hats, shekere, and steel drums fuse together and fade back, battering through the low end and punching holes through the churning 303s on the way to building a monster of an Afro-Cuban polyrhythm. Go for the single version if you can — while the Come With Us album version builds a nice bridge to “Galaxy Bounce,” the 8-minute-plus 12″ mix has a sly little breather midway through that silences every drum in the track just to rebuild that groove again with the force of a haymaker.

06. “The Private Psychedelic Reel” (from Dig Your Own Hole, 1997)

One of the Chemical Brothers’ defining traits during their early come-up was the psychetropic undercurrents of their music — but something a bit more involved and elaborate than flower-child vibes or a granola-fied infusion of nostalgia. Named for a legendary rumored recording the Beatles supposedly made for themselves to drop acid to, “The Private Psychedelic Reel” takes some recognizable elements of vintage psychedelia — a droning, chiming sitar chief amongst them — fuses it with a characteristically oversized drum loop, drops it in the middle of a Blade Runner flying car rush hour, and then gets Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue to lace it with a clarinet freakout, of all things. A glorious, swirling, full-throttle pile-up of kaleidoscopic what-the-hell (in both the “I have no idea what is going on” and “hey, might as well go for it” senses).

05. “Star Guitar” (from Come With Us, 2002)

There’s no getting around the fact that this is one of those rare times where a video is the definitive way to experience a song, solely because it’s a stunning visualization of the way the song actually sounds. Michel Gondry’s clip for the ’02 single is a Pro Tools interface given travelogue form, a train ride through countryside and industrial towns that uncannily syncs up with each piece of the song — a series of sheds represents the kicks, utility poles appear with each clap, factory chimneys emerge with the arpeggios, and so forth. Still, it’s also an exercise in confirming the obvious: the Chemical Brothers push music as forward motion, where bass is a gravitational force and no beat stands alone for long. It’s also one of their flat-out prettiest songs, as one of the most recognizable moments in Mick Ronson’s career playing guitar for Bowie is cast in flickering neon and calls up the sense of euphoria that makes the song’s celestial “You should feel what I feel/ You should take what I take” breakdown so breath-snatching.

04. “Block Rockin’ Beats” (from Dig Your Own Hole, 1997)

Dig Your Own Hole was the album that the American press seized on as the Chems’ entry into 1997’s Great Electronica Sweepstakes — an association that would simultaneously pit them as both a version of and a foil to the waning alt-rock atmosphere of the times. But “rocktronica” was reductive miscasting once you got past the Beatle-isms of “Setting Sun,” and the record’s next big single (and leadoff cut) proved that one of the strongest weapons they brought to the table wasn’t Britpop — it was hip-hop. “Block Rockin’ Beats” is shamelessly huge-sounding in a way that points directly to the Bomb Squad, complete with turntable-scratch explosions and Bernard Purdie drum breaks, while the titular exclamation comes from a Schoolly D cut from the summer of ’89. And then there’s one of the track’s more off-the-wall nods to old-school rap: the recurring screech that sounds like a cross between a hawk scream and tearing aluminum is actually a super-distorted “hoooooo” shout from the legendary Grand Wizard Theodore DJ showcase “Live” Convention “’82.” Throw in an intricately chopped bass line that doubles up and one-ups the same Crusaders groove their erstwhile namesakes the Dust Brothers flipped on the Beasties’ “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” and you’ve got one of the greatest b-boy/raver summits ever cut. If the genre term “big beat” hadn’t existed before “Block Rockin’ Beats,” it’d have to be invented — and then discarded, because how could you make anything else in its class not sound small next to it?

03. “Out Of Control” (from Surrender, 1999)

By the summer of ’99, Bernard Sumner had put out his third album with Johnny Marr as the dance-rock superduo Electronic, and was in the process of getting New Order back into the studio for Get Ready. So an appearance on the Chemical Brothers’ third album, Surrender, the followup to the widely acclaimed Dig Your Own Hole, seemed like it could’ve been an interesting little diversion. Instead, especially with hindsight, it feels a lot more fateful. Call it a Manchester torch-passing or just a youthful enthusiasm rewarded — either way, “Out Of Control” is the kind of cross-generational homage dance music hadn’t been particularly prone to, and it became something of an event record that drew on the strengths of both the headline act and their synthpop-royalty guest. At this point, Rowlands and Simons had already begun to renew their focus on classic house that would carry them through Come With Us, the pulsing throb of the production running UK acid and Detroit techno on parallel rails. It’s relentless as a beat, but Sumner’s presence adds an oddly reserved and wistful presence that makes what otherwise feels like a thrill-ride track into something a bit more melancholy. It could be the lyrics — one of those classic cases where the chorus promises excitement (“We’re out of control”) but the lyrics reveal a core of anxiety (“Maybe I’m just scared of losin’ you/ Or maybe it’s the things you make me do”) that’s more a plea for getting together than an anthemic celebration of it. And even if you’re one of those people who tends to have a hard time taking Sumner’s lyrics seriously — the line where he wonders if “maybe you think my mustache is too much” might scan kind of goofy (if autobiographical) — the way his guitar chimes in during the song’s buildup bridge and sprawls out through the outro would be enough to bring a lump to Tony Wilson’s throat.

02. “Setting Sun” (single, 1996; also appears on Dig Your Own Hole, 1997)

It might be a strange bit of irony that the full flush of peak Britpop is loosely confined in this song: Noel Gallagher’s lyrics are a near-verbatim interpolation of a then-unreleased Oasis demo, “Comin’ On Strong,” recorded sometime in their pre-fame years of 1992-’93, and released when the sun was literally starting to set on that corner of the British Empire. Still, you can’t blame folks for thinking this sounded like the future of rock — albeit in part by evoking a song from the long-enshrined past, literally titled “Tomorrow Never Knows” — because when it all comes down to it, there’s a verse-chorus-verse structure and those keening synth patches and distorted, smeared strings sound kind of like heavily processed guitar wails anyways. But it really is a dance track at heart: Those Bonham-size stagger-step drums feel just as close to hardcore jungle breaks as they do to ’60s acid rock, and the dive-bomber dynamics — including the burbling, hissing breakdown and giant-robot-boot-sequence buildup partway through, just in case you need a breather from two and a half minutes of hyper-intense motion — feels like the best kind of vertigo. For just that moment, it felt like rave really would be the new standard for pop everywhere — it just took a lot longer than most people thought.

01. “Life Is Sweet” (from Exit Planet Dust, 1995)

The first single to really put together all the pop-friendly elements and cross-genre enthusiasms the Chemical Brothers became known for is also their best — not by a wide margin, or to the exclusion of the other, more house- and techno-focused stuff they do, but enough that it stands out as a special highlight. Could be because it’s so enigmatic: Tim Burgess of the Charlatans has a breathy, fuzzed-out guest vocal on this that’s so deeply sunk into the sundazed endorphin-pinball texture of the song that nearly every attempt to transcribe the lyrics is riddled with question marks. Three lines that seem to make the clearest sense, though, get to what makes “Life Is Sweet” so definitive, “I’m driving in the sun”; “I’m walking in my sleep”; “I bang a million drums” — it’s day-for-night disorientation, moving forward without knowing entirely how, with every beat you can think of propelling you forward. Maybe those lyrics aren’t the real tell, though — save that recurring sampled yeaaaaah — because the track burbling and billowing underneath (or around) those slippery words just soars, heavy bliss that makes even machine-gun drum breaks and uptempo Latin-soul congas into lighter-than-air travel. And then there’s the denouement, the melodic shift that turns on the line “I’m caught up in your love” and jumps from deep analog bass to a more delicate, ambient swath of sound that’s rarely this emotionally resonant outside the Boards Of Canada discography.

Listen to the playlist over at Spotify.

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