This morning, over 210,000 people would have returned from Glastonbury Festival, riding high off one of the music events of the summer. This was of course not to be, but the resulting coverage from both the festival and broadcast partner, BBC, treated us all to a weekend of legendary performances. The Bowies, Adeles and Rolling Stones were among the most talked about, while electronic music showed what an important part of the festival’s history it is. Here we follow a similar note of nostalgia, and revisit the history of electronic music in the UK, and pick out the 15 greatest acts ever.
For this list we’ve chosen acts whose sounds are widely regarded as being electronic. That means that despite their undoubted legacies and influence on the scene, primarily pop stars or bands, like Radiohead, New Order, Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode all miss out.
15. Boards of Canada
Best song: Peacock Tail
Best album: Music Has The Right To Children
Check out: This vinyl boxset ft Boards of Canada and other Warp artists
Scottish IDM innovators Boards of Canada, can comfortably hold a candle to Aphex Twin with regards to the early origins of the genre. And while Aphex has gone on to become a household name and a legend of electronic music, Boards of Canada comfortably reclined and refused to play the game, rarely giving interviews and barely ever performing. But despite their reclusive nature, BOC still manage to subliminally infiltrate the mainstream, whether it’s in the Hollywood film Sinister, or in sample form on Solange’s This Bird.
Eerily innovative with their craft, Boards of Canada are famous for their incorporation of themes and moods, evoking feelings and emotions from deep within the recesses of their albums. Distorted samples, elements of lo-fi, dated mediums like public broadcasting or 70s field recordings all have a say in BOC’s work, and bring forth a subtle, almost subliminal sense of nostalgia and wonder. The result is a unique, often-uneasy, always-absorbing catalogue of music that proves impossible to replicate, and timeless in its execution.
The UK’s answer to Kraftwerk, and one of the earliest innovators of electronic music, there aren’t many avenues of the industry The Orb haven’t had a hand in. From ambient to dub, trip-hop to IDM, The Orb’s genre-spanning catalogue continues to be consolidated by an overarching psychedelic sound, one that resonated with ravers at afterparties throughout the 90s.
The Orb were straight out of an acid trip, with samples, filters, distortion and effects placing you deep within a listening experience, one that twisted and contorted its way through an unpredictable dreamy aesthetic. Groundbreaking live performances followed in suite with the pioneering nature of their music, with sets often being compared to the likes of Pink Floyd due to their extensive visual displays. Fifteen albums later, The Orb still make welcomed appearances on the festival circuit, and are really not to be missed while they’re still around.
13. Chase & Status
Best song: Lost and Not Found (ft Louis M^tters)
Best album: More Than Alot
Best video: Let You Go
Check out: This performance of Blind Faith at Glastonbury 2011
It’s impossible to ignore a genre like drum and bass when looking at electronic music in the UK. Roni Size, 4Hero and Goldie are of course not forgotten, with all having helped establish a movement that continues to be cherished today. But Chase & Status drew from these foundations before them, and took the scene to later, greater heights, and helped drum and bass become a real household name. They would also heavily promote promising talent via collaborations or their MTA label, giving platforms to the likes of Nero and Dimension, as well as Plan B, Kano and Liam Bailey.
A significant amount of the DnB community, including your humble narrator, will point to 2009’s More Than Alot as the introductory album to drum and bass, a legendary bass LP if ever there was one. And following a huge Roc Nation-signing/Rihanna-collaborating 2009, their second album, plus a sell-out live stadium tour, took C&S to the charts with hits like End Credits and Blind Faith. Chase & Status would later return to the roots of the genre with RTRN II JUNGLE, a tour and full-length LP celebrating the origins of DnB and jungle, home to modern-day anthems like Program and Retreat.
12. UNKLE/James Lavelle
Best song: Be There (ft Ian Brown)
Best album: Psyence Fiction
Best video: Rabbit In Your Headlights (ft Thom Yorke)
Check out: Unkle’s AV ‘cube’ show at fabric in 2019
James Lavelle was an undoubted driving force of electronic music in the 90s, and helped define genres like trip-hop, alternative hip-hop and turntablism. And in founding the world-renowned Mo’Wax label, alternative artists like Krust, DJ Shadow and of course, his own act UNKLE, would go on to shape the sound of the 90s. Even into the 2020s, Lavelle and UNKLE continue to push the boundaries, with groundbreaking performance pieces like its A/V cube to celebrate fabric’s 20th birthday.
But music aside, Lavelle saw a vision in the potential culture surrounding electronic music, taking advantage of wide-eyed audiences who were open to the movement, just as much as the music. He enlisted artists like 3D from Massive Attack and graffiti legend Futura, for some of the most iconic imagery of the 90s, collaborated with Nike SB and Supreme (both of which amongst the most coveted Dunks and box logo tees respectively), and Japanese toy companies to entice the far-and-wide. It was all just an idea back then, which thanks to Lavelle, quickly sky-rocketed into a full-blown phenomena.
Despite a somewhat-slept-upon early career in the late 90s-early 00s, Four Tet is this generation’s closest thing to a true great. Starting off as a pioneer of a new movement coined as indietronica, Four Tet’s early work of Pause and Rounds draped guitar riffs and a sleepy psych sound on top of programmed drums, before the percussion-led glitchy sound of subsequent projects followed. Four Tet’s sound has since evolved to near-every avenue of electronic music, with Eric Prydz, The xx, Bicep, Burial, Radiohead and MF Doom just a handful of collaborators.
And that should speak volumes about the breadth and depth of Hebden’s output, with recent efforts boasting the synth-led shimmer of Shura or Mura Masa remixes, to vibrant, festival-ready bangers like KH collab, Only Human. Forward-thinking live shows, and for-the-culture initiatives support a 20-year success story, one that’s seen Four Tet rightfully promoted to headliner, and one of the true gems of modern-day electronic music.
Can you name an artist whose music has been featured in both Mean Girls and Wipeout? Collaborated with Lady Leshurr, Cillian Murphy and Prof. Brian Cox? And performed alongside Doctor Who at Glastonbury, and even Stephen Hawking at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony? Alongside releasing legendary LPs like The Green Album, playing the very first Lab session with Mixmag, and dusting their discography with a political persona, Orbital have done it all.
Orbital have been held in high regard by the scene since the early 90s, with their genre-spanning electronica proving to stand the test of time, even into the 2020s. They’ve remained a cutting edge voice, connecting with a new breed of fans to this day, either by weaving Greta Thunberg into 2019 release, Impact (The World Is Burning), or headlining festivals like Love Saves The Day and Boomtown. It seems those iconic headlamps are just as bright as ever.
Perhaps the most underrated artist on this list, one that simply doesn’t receive the respect they deserve. While many of the succeeding artists in this article will boast either overwhelming critical acclaim or widespread commercial success, Groove Armada live within something of an industry purgatory, between, and perhaps just shy, of the astronomical recognition or revenue of others.
Quietly cool, without the frills of superstardom, Groove Armada instead go about their business in the background, consistently releasing strong albums that stretch to every avenue of inspiration. From the dancey downtempo masterpiece Vertigo, via jaunty disco-dub fusions on Goodbye Country, to all-out house project Little Black Book; and it’s all executed with an overarching GA sound that flirts with stadium-style electro rock. Helped by anthems like Superstylin’, their unique live shows helped recognise GA as a driving force, turning mainstream pop/rock/band audiences onto a brand of electronic music for the masses.
Try as they might to distance themselves from all that they’re associated with: Bristol and trip-hop, Portishead are still deep-rooted, and undoubted pioneers of both. Their debut album, Dummy, blew the world away back in 1995, beating off fierce competition from Oasis and Van Morrison in earning them the Mercury Prize. With its now-iconic, ice-cold chill of trip-hop, mixed with hip-hop-tinged scratches and soul samples, plus Gibbon’s crushing vocal performances throughout, there’s still nothing quite like it.
Kicking off proceedings with such conviction, Portishead still managed to follow up Dummy with a gothic-horror-recalling, self-titled second album. This was followed by Third, which expanded the group’s sound to incorporate elements of film, jazz and krautrock. And although their discography is among the most critically-recognised within this list, outside of their release history, Portishead would go on to share a stage with Chuck D and Thom Yorke to name a few, and even headline Coachella.
Best song: Hiders
Best album: Untrue
Check out: Resident Advisor’s video essay on Untrue
The artists featured in this list are mostly recognised for the contributions to a cause, the spearheading of a sound, or in an unparalleled example of innovation, often with the help of fellow pioneers of the time. Burial however, did this all by himself. His unique approach to production and songwriting remains unlike any contemporary contributor, crafting a sound that fused jungle-esque breakbeats, out-of-place R&B-licked samples, distorted muddy bass, and off-kilter two-step percussion.
His reclusive personality and veiled mystique is reflected in the shadowy nature of his music, with industrial clunky beats colliding with dreamy soundscapes, resulting in music that is both euphoric yet desolate. The intricate nature of Burial’s output shines through its dark surface, revealing an insight into the person behind the product, with Metal Gear Solid soundbites and flickering moments of R&B buried within. It’s difficult to describe, impossible to emulate, and far-from-me to fathom the beauty of Burial: a true innovator of electronica, one who continues to be heralded among the very best.
Leftfield aren’t anywhere near as commercially successful as most of their contemporaries on this list, nor have they consistently contributed full length albums to the cause. What Leftfield did do however, is release perhaps the most influential debut album from any act on this list. And while you can certainly look to the likes of Phat Planet, a rewarding third album, forward-thinking collaborations, and numerous recognitions in adverts, TV and film, Leftfield are dominantly remembered for Leftism.
1995’s Leftism was unlike anything the world had seen before, and 25 years later, the full depth of its influence and legacy can be pinpointed and appreciated. From the tribal drums on Afro Left, dub and reggae influences on Release The Pressure, Incredible Bongo Band samples on Song of Life, the hard-hitting techno of Black Flute, jungle-esque breaks on Storm 3000, all these hallmarks of modern-day electronic music are to be discovered on Leftism. And besides its revolutionary sound, Leftism championed and perhaps changed, the art of collaboration in electronic music, throwing outsiders like John Lydon and Toni Halliday into the mix, and the industry never looked back.
Outrageously iconic yet sinisterly secretive, Richard D James, otherwise known as Aphex Twin, continues to be as outlandish, unpredictable, and unintentionally groundbreaking as ever. Warped is an astute overarching term to apply to James’ product, both metaphorically and literally (as well as label-y), having twisted, contorted and taken electronic music to the absolute limit of listenability.
Intelligent dance music, IDM to most, is Aphex Twin’s most pioneering contribution however, having nonchalantly thrown together the worlds of techno, ambient, breakbeat and acid house, to create an intricate, rave-ready concoction of sounds. Widely regarded as one of the most inventive producers in recent memory, Aphex continues to ignore conformities and conventions, packaging dreamy synth-led chill rides next to abrasive, canal-colliding cuts, to create incomparable LPs and EPs, ones that still scoop up Grammy Awards.
No list about electronic music is complete without Massive Attack; Bristol’s biggest export, and champions of the iconic ‘Bristol Sound’ of the mid-90s. The duo’s debut album, Blue Lines, encapsulated the amalgamation of cultures Bristol was famed for back then, and capitalised on a groundbreaking fusion of inspirations. It collided the worlds of reggae and dub, with the revolutionary sound of trip-hop, lounge and downtempo, and somehow gave birth to dance music you didn’t need to dance to.
In pioneering an entire movement that continues to be drawn on today, Massive Attack’s approach to the presentation of their product is what truly sets them apart. From packaging design to production, a clouded mystique to collaboration, Massive Attack are true pioneers of multimedia marketing. Iconic music videos, laboured-over album artwork designed in-house by Del Naja, well-documented rifts in the group, a powerfully political and philanthropic undercurrent, and a litter of genre-defining albums, their aren’t many, or indeed any, that can match the massive contributions of Massive.
3. The Prodigy
Best song: Invaders Must Die
Best album: Music for the Jilted Generation
Best video: Firestarter
Check out: Keith Flint’s interview with XL’s Richard Russell
The entire musical industry lost a one-of-a-kind musician with Keith Flint’s tragic passing back in early 2019. The Prodigy’s lead vocalist was a cherished contributor to electronic music, whose iconic look and sound undoubtedly shaped both The Prodigy’s image and musical direction.
Widely credited with pioneering the 90s big beat movement, The Prodigy’s groundbreaking sound encapsulated all that rave music is. Their unique twist became a manic fusion of heavy guitars and rock music, soundsystem influences and samples, ham-fisted over a blueprint of electronic music. Six consecutive number one albums and 25 million record sales place them among the most commercially successful electronic acts, with widespread critical acclaim naturally following early projects like Music for the Jilted Generation and Fat of the Land. Their live shows too were, and perhaps remain, among the most high-energy performances in the industry, which earned them familiarity headlining metal festivals like Download, contemporary events like SW4, or the absolute best in Glastonbury.
Best song: Born Slippy
Best album: dubnobasswithmyheadman
Best video: Jumbo
Check out: This live performance of their High Contrast collab, Scribble
Underworld are one of the most important electronic artists of all time. Back in 1994, they released one of, if not the most important techno albums of all time, the celebrated dubnobasswithmyheadman, simultaneously providing the auditory backbone for one of the most important British films of all time, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. The duo would then go on to be musical directors for the London 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony.
Karl Hyde and Rick Smith’s collaborative career stretches over 40 years, boasting 10 studio albums of varying genres and styles, flirting with ideas of pop, house, dnb, big beat and more, all while staying true to their renowned techno sound. The duo continue to thrive in their later years, selling out shows at Alexandra Palace and Wembley to name a few, earning Grammy Award nominations, and continuing to push a genre they’ve undoubtedly helped dictate from day one.
What can be said about a duo like The Chemical Brothers? Across their glittering 40-year career, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons have been an untouchable force of electronic music, one that’s achieved just about everything out there. Each of their nine albums have reached the top ten (bar Further which couldn’t), six of which grabbing the number one spot. They’ve also won six Grammy Awards, and headlined a stage at Glastonbury a record 10 times.
But besides the laundry list of accolades and achievements, The Bros were detrimental in introducing pop audiences to electronic music with their trademark big beat sound. This was particularly in the US and Asia, championing mainstream collaboration and sampling to a degree no act had done before. Their live shows were legendary in the early 90s, and even in the 2020s, continue to set benchmarks as the show to beat. Fans have followed The Chemical Brothers for over 40 years, journeying through abrasive breakthrough beats on Dig Your Own Hole, through dreamy visceral displays on Further. And as 2019’s No Geography proved, there’s simply no stopping the very best in British electronic music.
Honorable mentions: Fatboy Slim, Brian Eno, Goldie, Faithless, Sasha, Paul Oakenfold, Roni Size, Tricky, Gorillaz, Squarepusher, Venetian Snares, Bicep