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20 Werks of Wonder: Two Decades of Astralwerks

Block-rockin' beats and far stranger things from a crucial electronic-music label

picture-18685-1372868658Philip Sherburne // July 30, 2013

It’s hard to imagine now, when everyone from chillwavers to Kanye is mining old chillout-room B-sides for inspiration, but in 1993, the idea of ambient electronic music was so alien to most American listeners that a New York Times feature on the genre found it necessary to warn, “Strangers to ambient house may find the variety in these works hard to grasp at first. But a few listens in the proper state of reflective attention reveal the span of experimental moves that the creators of ambient house are making with seemingly random sounds.”

The occasion for the feature was a compilation, Excursions in Ambience, that had just come out on New York’s Caroline Records, an independent label with punk-rock roots that was better known for bands like Hole, Smashing Pumpkins, and Primus. Featuring acts like Future Sound of London, Ultramarine, and Banco De Gaia, the album was designed to showcase the strange new sounds coming out of the U.K. and Europe (as well as pockets of the U.S., in the case of Los Angeles’ Tranquility Bass). Caroline’s Brian Long, who compiled Excursions alongside the New York DJ Mr. Kleen, called it “the future of electronic music: compositional, melodically interesting, texturally interesting, and very forward-thinking.”

Within a few months, Caroline had established a new platform to secure the music’s future: Astralwerks. The new label kicked off on July 30, 1993 — 20 years ago today — with Tales of Ephidrina, the debut album from the Future Sound of London’s Amorphous Androgynous alias; over the next decade, the imprint established itself as a key American conduit for British and European electronic music, expanding upon its ambient foundations to encompass tech-stepping drum ‘n’ bass, French house, big beat, and more.

Often working in collaboration with larger European labels like Virgin and EMI, Astralwerks didn’t necessarily build a cohesive roster in the way other electronic-music indies often did. (Today, as part of Universal Music Group, they’ve zeroed in on EDM acts like David Guetta, Swedish House Mafia, and Nervo.) But the artists the label helped break in America amount to some of the most genre-defining names of the past two decades: not just chart-toppers like the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, and Basement Jaxx, but a whole spectrum of knob-twiddlers and brain-diddlers, including Cassius, Photek, Source Direct, Air, Röyksopp, and even really out-there types like µ-Ziq.

To celebrate two decades of Astralwerks, we’ve put together an (alphabetized and entirely subjective) list of 20 key releases that represent the label’s contribution to electronic music (and beyond). Long live those “seemingly random sounds.”