In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re picking some of our favorite songs from 1996.
Aphex Twin, “4” (1996)
If you’d asked me about electronic music in 1996, I’d have offered some mealy-mouthed half-reply about The Chemical Brothers or “that Daft Punk video with the dog,” before dismissing the lot of it as “raver stuff.” It would be six more years before I first heard Boards Of Canada’s Geogaddi, the album that completely redefined everything I thought electronic music could be, and sent me down a wormhole of discovery so deep I’ve never crawled back out since. In the interim, I missed out on some incredible records thanks to my stubborn lack of curiosity about “techno,” where I lumped absolutely anything made with digital instruments. I wonder how much of that time could have been salvaged if I hadn’t been too foolishly blinkered to take a chance on Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James Album from that year, whose opening song “4” alone might have showed me that electronic music was capable of so much more than giving people in visors and glow-tape-covered JNCO pants something to dance to.
Like the rest of Aphex Twin’s fourth studio record, which takes its title from his actual name, “4” feels warmly, oddly personal. Its vocal “hook,” a sample of James’ dad calling him in for tea (“Richard?” “Yeah”), has the offhand quality of the recording accident that it is, but it’s also intentionally revealing—a little bit of humdrum humanity bleeding in to confirm that, behind all these robotic manipulations, there’s just a good kid “fucking around in a bedroom on the computer.” That balance between machine and man, natural and mechanical colors the entire album, with the warm ambient tones of James’ earlier works, playful children’s nursery rhymes, and an aura of lilting, English countryside romanticism married to some of the most mind-splattering jungle and drill ’n’ bass beats ever created. “4” itself is driven by a distorted snare roll that James pulls and stretches beyond all rhythm or recognition, but the mental picture it creates through its top layers of sentimental strings is of a fondly remembered late-summer afternoon, maybe enjoying a cup of tea with a loved one.
It’s an unusually expressive piece, and one that shows the many modes and moods that electronic music was capable of, something that James and his many acolytes continue to prove to listeners some 20 years after Richard D. James’ watershed release. Even for those of us who weren’t open-minded enough to hear it the first time around.