From humble origins within the world of 1970s progressive and new wave genres , electronic music has become a major fixture of popular music, splitting into dozens of subgenres and inspiring thousands of DJs around the world to try their own hand at a relatively new form of creating music. The current boom of electronica didn’t emerge out of nowhere. Bands of varying popularity have been defining the parameters of electronic music techniques for decades, creating the foundation upon which all modern DJs continue to build. These are a few of the artists whose work has affected just about everyone who’s ever tinkered with a modern synthesizer or drum machine, whether they know it or not.
West Germany was a hotspot of influential experimental music in the 1970s, but no other German band can compare to the early pulsing electronica of Kraftwerk. The band released a string of albums throughout the ’70s featuring melodies and beats made almost solely using various synthesizers, most of which were met with critical indifference or rallying cries from critics like Keith Ging of Melody Maker, who pleaded “For God’s sake, keep the robots out of music.” Their brand of early electronica may sound a little primitive by modern standards, but their skillful use of atmospheric and more commanding electronic instruments ended up forming the roots of techno, hip-hop, EDM and synth-pop. Their alien-like, futuristic styles influenced such artists as David Bowie and Kanye West, their music has been routinely sampled by their progenitors, and their lyrical themes of a society whose emotions are intertwined with technology become more prescient with each passing year. It’s no wonder The Guardian declared of Kraftwerk that “no other band since the Beatles has given so much to pop culture.”
2. Depeche Mode
Though there are plenty of famous DJs and electronic artists today, few can compare to the longevity or popularity of British electronic band Depeche Mode, who have had thirteen top 10 albums in the UK throughout their long history as a band. Their mature brand of techno-pop ranges in emotion between straightforward pop crooning and downcast brooding, all of it colored by danceable but intelligent synth music that sounded novel when it gained traction in the early 1980s. Today, the pulsing fullness of their songs has aged far better than many of their contemporaries, and sounds absolutely visionary for the way it predicted the sound of every major synthpop band that has emerged since Depeche Mode’s inception in 1977. A few of the artists they’ve influenced include Arcade Fire, Chvrches, Gary Numan and La Roux.
3. Yellow Magic Orchestra
The origins of modern electronics music can be found all over the world. Japan, for example, produced the pioneering electronica of Yellow Magic Orchestra, three producers who made music entirely out of electronic instruments while they were still considered novelties among mainstream musicians and the music press. Despite the limits of the technology when they were founded in 1977, the Japanese trio composed densely layered songs that sound as though they’re composed entirely using video game sound effects piled on top of each other until they create something sublime and futuristic. Their sounds formed the basis for synthpop and their influence is likely second only to Kraftwerk’s in helping to invent, in one form or another, virtually every form of popular electronic music that exists today. Impressively, their rich, orient-tinged music still astounds among the proliferation of imitators working today.
4. Afrika Bambaataa
Depeche Mode introduced the principles of Kraftwerk’s early techno into emotionally intelligent pop music, while New York hip hop artist Afrika Bambaataa brought them to early hip hop with such futuristic hits as “Planet Rock,” which sounds considerably richer than other early hip hop tracks for its skillful use of synthesizers to enhance the atmosphere and the beat. Afrika’s blend of electronic synthesizer effects and drum-machine-based beats with the funky beats and wordsmanship of hip-hop was the birth of electro-funk, a genre that, along with the breakbeat rhythm Afrika also pioneered, informs most of today’s largest acts in hip-hop and pop music.
5. DJ Shadow
Although his influence wasn’t felt as early as the others on this list, DJ Shadow still made one hell of an impact with his debut album, the sublimely creepy, entrancing Endtroducing…, which is among the first albums to be created using entirely samples culled from DJ Shadow’s extensive record collection. The result is the original “trip-hop” record that oozes atmosphere and melody alike, using the electronic form of sampling to shape songs that straddle the line between jazz, funk, electronica, progressive rock and more. DJ Shadow was among the first to show the world that one could create personal, effective art from the remnants of other media, paving the way for the current generations of basement artists, electronic musicians who mashup or collage other music to make something new.
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