When I was counting down my list of favorite albums in late 2011 and early 2012, I still hadn’t really heard much electronic music, and the only trip-hop I was familiar with was the Sneaker Pimps’ song “6 Underground” and DJ Shadow’s amazing album Endtroducing..…, which I have since profiled in a Favorite Albums entry. I was also familiar with Massive Attack’s excellent track “Teardrop,” I just didn’t know it — it was the song that played during the opening credits of the show House, M.D. That song is from Massive Attack’s brilliant third album Mezzanine, a record that used to make Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list at #412 when it was originally published in 2003, was dropped in the 2012 update, but made the cut again in 2020 at #383. One of the reasons why electronica escaped me for so many years — aside from the fact that it just wasn’t popular in the States until very recently (in the form of EDM, which is a lot different from ’90s electronic music) — is because just a handful of the surprisingly deep well of great electronic albums made Rolling Stone‘s list.
I had no idea how much electronic music had to offer until after I was done presenting my list. Naturally, since I had just finished clearing out my backlog of favorites, I was going to need more for my additional Favorite Albums entries. So I turned to AllMusic (always my go-to source) and spent a while compiling handy lists of five-star albums on the site, separating them into genres and clustering them so that the lists resembled branches of the larger music narrative. When it came to the electronic list, I was barely familiar with any of the albums on it. It was astounding to me that, as a sponge of popular music, I had somehow never even detected this entire branch of music. Granted, I was in elementary school while the ’90s electronica in question was playing in European clubs, mostly, if it rose to that level of public consciousness at all — there’s something about electronic music that’s inherently subversive, it would seem.
Since I had already been wowed by Endtroducing..… and I had figured out that I was already familiar with “Teardrop,” I gave Blue Lines — the first trip-hop album — by Massive Attack a go. (Of course, the fact that it remains on Rolling Stone‘s Greatest Albums of All Time list — originally at #395 in 2003, then at #397 in 2012, and most recently at #241 in 2020 — contributed to my desire to hear it.) This was still before everything became available on streaming services, so I bought it on iTunes and was immediately taken with it. In fact, I’m surprised I haven’t written about it sooner. I’ve listened to it countless times, and every time I finish listening to it, I feel the strange sensation that I haven’t listened to all of it; it leaves me wanting more (in a good way). There’s an aura of mystique, certainly, and it has a rather elusive quality, which is a pretty remarkable feat for an album that’s clearly so astonishingly original.
This may come as something of a surprise, but Blue Lines is easily one of the most influential albums of the ’90s. In terms of albums that influenced the direction music headed during the decade, only Nirvana’s Nevermind and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic had a larger impact. This influence was felt much more directly and immediately in Europe and internationally, but make no mistake, trip-hop was enormous, even in the United States. By the end of the decade, acts like the Chemical Brothers, Moby, and Fatboy Slim were everywhere, and there was an undercurrent of electronic touches to much of popular music (remember U2’s least-celebrated albums Zooropa (1993) and Pop (1997)?) that was played in the American mainstream when I first started listening in ’99.
Some rock bands even had DJs, including my favorite band, Incubus. A recent interview with guitarist Mike Einziger confirmed a connection I made some time ago between Blue Lines and my favorite album of all time, Make Yourself:
[Einziger] says the electronic side of music he listened to growing up doesn’t sound anything like today’s electronic music, and laughs in reflection. Looking back, however, he pinpoints electronic influence for Incubus being the drum n’ bass he heard while touring Europe. “There were artists like Roni Size and Talvin Singh, a lot of drum n’ bass artists in England in Europe doing cool stuff. That was a lot of the musical influence that we brought back with us to the US when we started making, at the time with Incubus, an album that came out in 1999 called Make Yourself,” he recalls memories of 15 years ago and entails some of Incubus’ most popular music. “There were elements of what we were trying to emulate, some live drum n’ bass music in certain spots. We have a song called “Pardon Me,” the verses in that song were totally lifted from us listening to those artists.”
As Mike alludes to there, after Incubus released their major-label debut LP S.C.I.E.N.C.E. in the fall of 1997, the band toured Europe, including England, as he mentions. Now, one of the biggest electronic acts in England at this time would have been Massive Attack, since they released Mezzanine around then, and it would have been impossible for them to not have absorbed any of Massive Attack’s influence if they had indeed been influenced by electronic music there. The reason why I say that is the prominent use of a whale sound on the Make Yourself track “The Warmth,” which is one of the most left-field sounds I have ever heard on an album. Well, turns out Massive Attack also used a whale sound on Blue Lines, specifically on the closer, “Hymn of the Big Wheel.” I finally made the connection maybe like a year before reading the Mike Einziger interview and always wondered about it. I guess the mystery has now been solved.
The songs on Blue Lines are uniformly excellent and sound pretty alien, too; I suppose that comes with the territory when new ground is broken, even if others later encroach upon the same land. The opener, “Safe from Harm,” is a stunner. The title track debuts the whispered rapping of Tricky, who would go on to become a star in his own right. “Unfinished Sympathy” is simply breathtaking. “Daydreaming” also features Tricky, and is relentlessly visionary. The music is distinctly English, decidedly ’90s, and seamlessly half-organic and half-electronic; it’s a modern version of the New Orleans gumbo that formed in the Mississippi delta decades and decades ago now. What makes the album so special, though, is that It’s nearly always cinematic — unassumingly so, in fact.
Utilizing chilly, distinctly ’90s-sounding synths, they still manage to avoid the danger of the saccharine style that later plagued the era — indeed, on Massive Attack’s 1994 follow-up Protection, some tracks dissolve into syrup thanks to a lack of form — but with songcraft this sturdy, Blue Lines never falters. The result is an album that creates the sensation of feeling oddly timeless and yet still very much of its time, as well as infinite in scope and yet also deeply personal and self-contained. It’s almost like the music exists just beyond the reaches of reality as you’re listening to it; it’s as if your mind gets transported to a hazy room outside the space-time continuum and laws of physics. I’m not sure I have ever experienced anything quite like it. Not bad for an album retroactively slapped with a “trip-hop” label that simplistically indicated a merging of electronica and rap.