As Surrender turns 20, No Geography settles into its groove, and the duo prepare to head out on a UK arena tour, let’s rank the Brothers’ discography.
Note: an abridged version of this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Who could have foreseen The Chemical Brothers still going strong in 2019? Maybe not even Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, let’s be frank. The pair are coming up on 30 years of making music together and they’ve weathered a lot over that time period. Humble beginnings idolising Manchester bands like New Order and The Smiths whilst mining The Bomb Squad’s production on Public Enemy records as architects of the now-maligned big beat genre, all whilst cheekily rocking the name The Dust Brothers at the same time the actual Dust Brothers were experiencing the apex of their own popularity. Unlikely zeitgeist riding as major players in both the Britpop scene of the 90s (that they were only tangentially related to) and the giant electronica wave near the turn of the millennium as hyperbolic American music critics wrongly pegged dance music to be the new sound of rock and roll. A decade spent often critically sandbagged whilst they tried to find their place in a changing pop scene which was slowly discarding them. Successfully making the transition to elder statesmen of the scene with reinvigorated music near or surpassing their 90s peak and a live show which reliably headlines festivals in a euphoric synaesthesia that’s among the best out there.
It’s been a wild ride for the Chems and a large yet perhaps underdiscussed element of their legend, the reason why they get to lug highly intricate and likely expensive live show equipment across the globe and back again, is that they have put out a phenomenal and highly consistent string of albums in their near-three decades together. Dance music, as you likely know, hasn’t always been seen as an album-friendly medium. Even today, it can be rare to find exceptional dance full-lengths designed to be consumed as complete statements, so imagine what it was like back in 1995 when Exit Planet Dust first showed up on the scene. The genre, the understanding typically goes, is inherently tailored more towards singles which can operate in any context and whilst the Chems are certainly no slouches when it comes to singles – both of their compilations make for excellent entry points for newbies, stacked to the gills with stonkers they are, and the pair even have two UK #1 singles to their name – what really made sceptical music critics sit up and take notice was how their albums worked as albums rather than awkwardly sequenced collections of singles.
You could even argue that Exit Planet Dust, along with Fatboy Slim’s 1996 debut Better Living Through Chemistry and preceded by The Prodigy’s legendary 1994 racket Music for the Jilted Generation, helped legitimise the dance album in the eyes of rock-focussed music critics. In the Thank Yous section of the booklet for their acclaimed 1997 debut Homework, Daft Punk even shouted out The Chems, most likely because of the legitimacy Planet Dust brought to the genre. Ever since that breakthrough, the duo have stretched, expanded, refined, and experimented with their sound in a manner which has not only allowed them to keep up with the times but in the process put out some of the finest dance full-lengths of all-time. And I’m not just talking about those first two records with that assessment, either. At a certain point in this ranking, we’re separating these records by individual degrees rather than feet or car lengths. It’s an excellent discography from block rocking beats to superstar DJs to acid tests to another world to no geography whatsoever. The brothers gonna work it out.
#9] We are the Night
By 2007, every major face of the 90s electronica/dance scene had fallen off their pedestals to some degree. The Prodigy had replaced righteous anger and pummelling energy with empty trolling and numbing lifelessness. Fatboy Slim had dumbed himself down so much that he was ending albums with Steve Miller Band covers. Even Daft Punk were considered washed up as studio musicians, although their famous Coachella set and subsequent Alive shows managed to salvage at least some goodwill from the maligned Human After All. The Chems dodged the 2000s stumble for the longest time, long enough to make some think they might pull through unscathed after all, but that just meant it caught up with a vengeance in 2007’s We are the Night.
In fairness, Night’s flop-status comes from it bravely rejecting rehashing old sounds and instead trying out all new stuff to see what sticks. But much of that experimentation either sounds like blatant trend-chasing (the otherwise enjoyable “Do It Again” is an unrepentant Timbaland bite at a time when Timbo was everywhere) or just plain embarrassing (the justifiably mocked “Salmon Dance” which sucks entirely on its own BBC Bitesize music merits even before vocalist Fatlip starts rapping about and to fish). It does feature “Saturate,” an album version of “Electronic Battle Weapon 8” which is one of my favourite songs in the duo’s career, and most of the instrumental tracks are solid enough, but those positives are cancelled out by stuff like “All Right Reserved,” a horrendous crossbreed with Klaxons and Lightspeed Champion which grafts emo onto uninspired noise rock electronica and does not work at all. Night is the only Chems record I don’t still have on CD and with good reason.
#8] Born in the Echoes
The next three entries have had points docked due to a relative lack of cohesion, each feeling less like a flowing set and more like a grab bag of different ideas they wanted to try and which we largely hop between with only slight connectivity. That’s most true of 2015’s Born in the Echoes, their first and only album to date to not have any of its tracks openly segue into one another, which is the primary reason for its ranking so low on the list. It’s not the only reason, though, as the Chems’ first album in five years, whilst not outright bad at any point (perhaps save for the aimless clatter of “Just Bang”), doesn’t feel particularly essential especially after the record it followed. Some of its highs were better executed on prior records – the Q-Tip-featuring “Go” pales in comparison to all-time jock-jam “Galvanize,” whilst “I’ll See You There” finds us back at the “Tomorrow Never Knows” well for the umpteenth time – and the middle and late-stage runs just don’t stand out much like on the best Chem records.
Still, credit must be given for trying and there are some absolute crackers on here, most especially the opening salvo. “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted” ominously creeps in the same way “Block Rockin’ Beats” and “Leave Home” did back in the day but locates the middle-ground between those full-frontal assaults and “Snow”’s atmospheric beat-withholding for an effective curtain-jerking tease. St. Vincent dances amidst an ever-tightening paranoid coil on “Under Neon Lights” whilst Ali Love’s turn on the churning carousel of “EML Ritual” is a far better usage of his talents than on “Do It Again;” “Lights” and “EML” one after the other making for the aural equivalent of a fantastically bad drug trip. Deep cut “Reflexion” sounds almost exactly like the Harbor Speedway level music from Spyro: Year of the Dragon, and the Beck-featuring closer “Wide Open” is easily the best in the band’s history since “The Private Psychedelic Reel,” a gorgeous deep house trance riding off into the sunset with surprising though not unwelcome calm.
Last month, Surrender turned 20. Unlike when Dig Your Own Hole turned 20, Surrender is getting the big old expanded remastering reissue boxset treatment in spite of it being the odd one out in the Chems’ otherwise legendary 90s run, marking a step down as it does from both its masterpiece of a predecessor and the rough and ready debut. But I get why. Surrender was the record which proved the Brothers were going to stick around, that they weren’t going to rest on their laurels, that the back-to-back UK #1 singles and platinum-selling album weren’t flukes. It’s an important record even if it’s the genesis for a flaw they’d keep chasing on and off throughout the rest of their careers: the big superstar team-up. Noel Gallagher’s back but there are also co-signs and involvements from Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue, Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval subbing in for the traditional Beth Orton guest spot, and both Bernard Sumner of New Order and Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream on the same track (the frenetic “Out of Control”).
Much like Echoes, Surrender is a bit of a mess which tries a lot but doesn’t always work – in particular, the aforementioned Mazzy Star team-up “Asleep From Day” is one half-Mazzy Star and one half-Chems but the two sides aren’t well integrated so the switches feel awkward – with an exceptional opening run tapering off with the occasional highlight afterwards. Surrender’s highlights, though, ultimately shine brighter than Echoes’. “Music:Response” flips a Nicole Wray sample to find the middle-ground between hip hop and Homework-era Daft Punk, “Under the Influence” and “Out of Control” both manage to sound like throwbacks to and also the future of festival rave at the exact same time, and breakout single “Hey Boy Hey Girl” still sounds as pulsating and exciting to these ears today as they did to five year-old Me’s ears for the first time 20 years ago. Meanwhile, “Got Glint” might be the just-plain coolest thing the Brothers have ever cooked up, winding up on a looping electronic bassline like a jack-in-the-box before the disco ball shimmers all over its chorus with those glistening synths and a universal message about the unity of dance vocodered almost beyond recognition.
#6] Push the Button
Real talk: if it weren’t for “Left Right,” I would probably have ranked Push the Button two steps higher on this chart. Whilst still very much a grab bag of various sounds, ideas, collabs, experimentations, and chart plays, Push the Button is by and large one of the finest collections of songs Rowlands and Simons have ever committed to wax. So much of this just bangs straight through. You got “Galvanize,” for one! Don’t tell me you don’t feel like the baddest motherfucker in the room any time “Galvanize” comes on, even with Q-Tip being better as texture to the song’s sound rather than lyrical substance. “Believe” foreshadows vocalist Kele Okereke’s eventual slide into dance music with his solo work and Bloc Party yet bodies the living daylights out of them with a full-force hard house charge. The Magic Numbers take the reins of the Beth Orton spot and earn the hyperbole that the British music press were showering on them at the time as “Close Your Eyes” becomes the prettiest thing in either group’s discography.
“Shake Break Bounce” hops all over M.I.A. style dancehall, “Marvo Ging” leaves the usual “Tomorrow Never Knows” drum break biting and instead lifts the back-masked guitars (here a role filled by an accordion) for a fun-as-hell broken country twist, “The Boxer” is perhaps the most criminally underrated single in the duo’s career… I’m at the point where I could sit here and write effusive praise about almost every track. Push the Button has really grown on me over the years, creeping up on my personal rotation and power rankings and flowing far better than initially thought until now where I’d hold so much of it up as their best work. It’s just a shame that, slap-bang in the middle, there’s “Left Right,” a truly miserable mid-tempo hip hop number which utterly destroys the album’s pacing with its ungainly lumber even before Anwar Superstar shows up to joylessly and (worse) rhythmless-ly bark over the tepid beat for four disastrous minutes. It singlehandedly drags the album down several rungs.
#5] No Geography
I deliberated for a long while whether to place No Geography here or in the next slot. Averting recency bias and all that; what if the shine dulls when the freshness wears off? Were that to happen, would I really feel comfortable placing No Geography above Exit Planet Dust? In the end, my mind was made up not by the newness paradox but instead by the simple fact that I don’t rate “Eve of Destruction” or “Bango” much. They’re good enough songs, this isn’t another “Left Right” situation, but I don’t think the album takes off until the title track. But when it does take flight? There’s a reason why this is one of my favourite albums of the year so far.
Almost every album since Push the Button has been billed as a return to the Brothers’ 90s heyday, but No Geography comes closest to justifying that billing since it was predominately made using the same instruments, sequencers, and modulators which were responsible for their early work and has a very 90s electronic feel permeating throughout. “Gravity Drops” in particular has a throwback cyberpunk sensation that I always ride for, whilst “Free Yourself” and “MAH” could slide right into a 90s rave setlist just as smoothly as they do a 2010s rave setlist. But this is no rehash. In certain respects, it’s almost like Rowlands and Simons are trying to mine all the 90s electronic sounds they missed out on whilst serving the big beat masters, the album’s sequencing and flow marrying their Side B psychedelia tendencies with moment-seizing political undertones – “We’ve Got to Try,” the Network “I’m mad as hell and I ain’t gonna take it no more” hook of “MAH” (albeit nicked from El Coco’s 1977 song), the title of the album itself – to transcend both the dates of its influences and its creation. Plus, there are hooks coming out of every corner of this record, goddamn!
#4] Exit Planet Dust
The one which started it all. Exit Planet Dust is arguably two albums in one, cleanly divided through the middle, the first half being an all-out speaker assault of the biggest big beat whilst the second half is a slower and more restrained psychedelic comedown based around grooves. Less talented and more cynical acts would have used this genius divide as an excuse to slack on Side B, to adhere to the typical 90s pop CD strategy of frontloading the album with all the club-levelling singles before petering out with half-baked filler. The Chems, fortunately, did not do that. Instead, both halves are totally solid, offering up contrasting vibes yet not skimping on banging tunes. This is the album with “Leave Home,” the cacophonous “Song to the Siren,” and “Chemical Beats,” the last of which has been canonised into a generation of a certain age thanks to its placement on the original WipEout soundtrack. But it’s also the album with the woozy “One Too Many Mornings,” the dreamy closer “Alive Alone,” and especially “Chico’s Groove” which is just made by what can only be described as a whale’s cry burbling up halfway through.
Really, the only major knock I have against the record is that it ended up being outdone by Dig Your Own Hole two years later, that sequel blowing its predecessor’s 4:3 aspect ratio out to widescreen and refining the template to its most potent possible form. As criticisms go, it’s not a bad one to be saddled with. As to why Exit Planet Dust is still only at #4 and had to fight tooth and nail for that slot with No Geography, it’s more a matter of personal preference. The records I’ve ranked above it just excite me more and I reach for them more often than I do Dust. Like I said at the outset, we’re basically operating by degrees at this point in the list.
#3] Come With Us
Here’s the one that I think is going to rustle the most jimmies. Somewhat maligned upon release, I’ve found 2002’s Come With Us to hold up extremely well in the years since. A retrenchment of sorts following the celeb grab bag of Surrender – Beth Orton reclaims her late-album ballad spot, whilst the only other guest voice belongs to Richard Ashcroft hamming it up delightfully on closer “The Test” – the Brothers marry the cohesive set-based journey of their first two records with the willingness to turn their sound inside out of their third, and the resulting concoction is near-enough the best of both worlds. The titular opener sets the stage tremendously, the staccato strings intertwining with a burbling synth line and grand proclamatory dialogue sample before a tumbling drum roll drops the listener into a gloriously textured thrash-about.
World music influences rubbing up against big beat staples is the order of the day here with the former freshening up the latter in a sonically delightful manner which makes Come With Us one of the duo’s best records to listen to on a good pair of headphones. “It Began in Afrika” offsets a four-to-the-floor backbeat with polyrhythmic drum accents and expertly-timed old-fashioned scratches, “My Elastic Eye” booms in with electro-hop force for a fun-as-hell three minutes, “The State We’re In” enlists Beth Orton for a vastly improved do-over of Surrender’s “Asleep From Day,” whilst “Hoops” contrasts techno’s pulse with the Latin-tinged psychedelic pop of an obscure The Association B-side before melding the two together in a manner which should not work as hypnotically as it does. And then there’s “Star Guitar.” Still pure and perfect after all these years and was the best single track Rowlands and Simons had ever made for a good eight years. If you haven’t given Come With Us a shot in a while or wrote it off because of the admittedly dead-cheesy “The Test,” I urge you to dust it off and give it another shot. It’s aging surprisingly gracefully.
#2] Dig Your Own Hole
Now, Dig Your Own Hole is never not going to scream mid-90s from its every orifice. Hole carbon dates itself as the year 1997 from the instant one pushes the play button, let alone the centrepiece appearance of Noel Gallagher moonlighting from his day job. But I do not consider this a negative, not in the slightest, because the adrenaline rush I get when I listen to Hole has yet to dissipate after all these years. From the proclamation by a sampled Schooly D that they’re “back with another one of those block rockin’ beats,” the Chems’ sophomore record goes right for the gut and does not stop until the clarinet on “The Private Psychedelic Reel” noodles off into space one hour, three minutes, and twenty-seven seconds later.
Pound for pound, track for track, this is the quintessential Chemical Brothers album, taking everything which worked about Exit Planet Dust and loading it up on enough drugs to power the greatest night of one’s life. Beats so hard and heavy they could level city blocks if played through big enough speakers (“Block Rockin’ Beats,” “Setting Sun,” “It Doesn’t Matter”). Off-kilter samples twisted and distorted in such a manner that they become the most unlikely of hooks (“Elektrobank,” “Get Up on It Like This,” “Lost in the K-Hole”). Utterly filthy basslines (almost the whole damn record). Knowing just when to let up for a brief moment of lucidity before plunging back in (“Where Do I Begin”). And “The Private Psychedelic Reel!” Oh, heavens, “The Private Psychedelic Reel!” Home to a drop so perfect that the Brothers’ are absolutely justified in spamming it over and over again with almost no meaningful variation across nearly 10 minutes! In the pantheon of 90s dance music, Dig Your Own Hole still towers above all. For most other artists, it’s the kind of record that could never be equalled. For the Chems, they somehow bettered it.
Perhaps one of the reasons why The Chemical Brothers first caught the attention of predominately rock-focussed critics was because their music borrows just as much from the mindset and styles of rock music as it does electronic and hip hop. What is Side B of Exit Planet Dust, after all, but a more-beat heavy psychedelic rock record, and what is the non-stop arbitrarily delineated Side A of that same album but a progressive rock record wearing the skin of a cool-as-shit DJ set? Again, they codified the dance album sequencing for not just their contemporaries but many of their descendants and did so by cribbing from statement rock records. As mentioned, their weaker 2000s records became more a series of grab bag singles and experiments that were equally as good or bad taken out of album context as they were in context and, whilst I will still ride for some of them, it was clear by We are the Night that Rowlands and Simons had lost their way chasing a pop scene which was rejecting them. So, they regrouped, they got back in the studio, and they found themselves again on their most adventurous and best record to date.
Nobody is going to confuse Further for anything but a Chemical Brothers album, mind; it’s even still got the traditional “Tomorrow Never Knows” break, this time turning up in mid-album highlight “Dissolve.” But it really does see them exploring risky and bold new frontiers. It’s their only album to date with no credited guest features, Rowlands himself sings on most of the tracks with brief textural cameos by Stephanie Dosen. It contains no obvious big breakout singles, the closest being “Swoon” but that’s six minutes long. It embraces texture and restraint in a manner heretofore unseen on a Chemical Brothers full-length, opener “Snow” glitches and screeches for five minutes but the actual drop doesn’t arrive until almost three minutes into the next song. And even more so than their sublime first two albums, Further is intended to be experienced primarily as a complete statement, a record you listen through in one sitting from “Snow” to “Wonders of the Deep” just eight tracks later.
Most Chems tracks aim for the gut, for an immediate visceral thrill that makes the listener feel like the coolest and most badass motherfucker in the room. The tracks on Further instead aim for the head, for someone to sit and absorb it in a manner where the nuances linger long after listening: the way “Escape Velocity”’s build sounds like it’s sucking all the air out of the room, how “Dissolve” so lightly hangs in the air around its midpoint as if having broken through the clouds before Rowlands comes in, the way in which “K+D+B” and the aforementioned “Deep” don’t even try to build the album back up after “Swoon” tears the building down yet have catchy as hell melodies and gorgeous glittering synth waves regardless. Further is one of the best albums of the decade and the reason I gave it the nod over Dig Your Own Hole is very simple. Hole may have “Setting Sun” and “The Private Psychedelic Reel,” two of the finest songs of the 90s, but both sound equally as great out of sequence on the album as they do in sequence. Further has “Swoon,” one of my favourite songs of all-time and an unbeatable perfect communication of pure euphoria with the best drop of the decade. Out of context, it’s brilliant. In context, after so much build on the album and following on from the dark motoric churn of “Horse Power,” it sounds utterly transcendent. And every other track on Further has that similar cumulative effect. It is astonishing.