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Basement Jaxx may well be the most misunderstood act in the history of house music. Nowadays they are probably best known known for their bells, whistles and the kitchen sink take on stadium house, a divisive sound that has taken them to the heights of The Hollywood Bowl but written off their underground acclaim.

And yet trace the duo’s history back — past 2014’s Junto, 2005’s massive-selling The Singles compilation, 2004’s Grammy-winning Kish Kash — and you find a band whose work for their own Atlantic Jaxx label was adored by underground DJs and consumed in dodgy South London pubs; a duo who pioneered a very English take on house, one that added the South American and Jamaican sounds of London to the US deep house template.

You will, in short, find one of the most intriguing and overlooked catalogues in British dance music, one that is ripe for reappraisal, as we pass the 20th anniversary of the duo first bothering the charts with Samba Magic.

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Richard D James

The Aphex Twin, aka Richard D James, is nothing if not a mystery to his fans. A – shall we say liberated? – approach to the truth in interviews, combined with a mischievous sense of humour means that rumours abound about the 43-year-old producer and have done so since he first arrived in the public consciousness in 1991 with the first Analogue Bubblebath 12 inch.

Does he drive a tank? Does he write his music by lucid dreaming? And did he really remix a Craig David song “just too annoy him”? We’ll probably never know.

Possibly the biggest tease for his fans, though, is the promise of his unreleased material. James is known for his prodigious work rate which, when coupled to an ambivalent attitude towards actually releasing music (2001 album Drukqs was apparently only released because he left a minidisc player containing most of the tracks on a plane), means that he has hundreds, possibly thousands, of unreleased songs sitting around in the vault.

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Super Discount 3

Étienne de Crécy’s first Super Discount album – initially released as a series of EPs in 1996, then rounded up for album release  – was not just one of the very best of the French Touch albums to see the light of day, it was one of the Frenchest.

From the laid-back, almost loungey feel, to the grace and beauty of the production, which touched on disco, house and dub, to the way the music always seemed to take exactly how long it needed to make its point, be it 10 minutes (opener, Le Patron est Devenu Fou!), or nine seconds (Tout à 10 Balles), Super Discount radiated effortless Gallic élan.  It was house music, by and large, but took a magpie approach to its source material, sampling everything from jazzy piano, to dub bass lines to flamenco castanets, in a way that The Avalanches would later emulate.

So cool was Super Discount, in fact, that it didn’t seem to even be bothered who it was by. De Crécy was the ringleader, certainly, and two tracks are credited to him alone, but otherwhere there are tracks from Minos Pour Main Basse (Sur La Ville) and Mooloodjee (De Crécy pseudonyms); La Chatte Rouge (De Crécy and Philippe Zdar, then of Cassius, who had previously worked with De Crécy as Motorbass); Air (remixed by De Crécy); Alex Gopher; Mr. Learn (Laurent Collobert) and the enigmatic DJ Tall. In many of these tracks, Crécy may or may not have had a hand. But it somehow didn’t matter.

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blacklodge2

I don’t know what is the rarest, most expensive or most obscure record among my modest record collection. But somewhere among the latter category lies Hotline by Black Lodge. If I had to give it a category it might be obscurest record I listen to regularly.

True, Hotline has a Discogs entry. But this hardly inspires confidence, claiming “Promo release only 2 copies pressed up”. It doesn’t even list the B side (it is Baby, in case anyone from Discogs is listening). Other than that, it draws an online blank.

Maybe that makes it sound like my CD promo of Hotline (picked up for 49p in a charity shop in Islington many years ago) could be worth something. But I don’t think so. For a start, CDs rarely command a high value. And for a second, no one seems to really care about Black Lodge. (They should do. But I’m coming to that.) In fact the only other person I know who likes them used to do Black Lodge’s press, many years ago. And even he was surprised that I had a copy.

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Chicas

It seems strange in 2014, when record collectors have picked over everything from pre-Revolutionary Russian vocal 78s to Vietnamese soul, that the musical history of Spain is still largely unknown internationally.

After all, some 800,000 British people live in Spain and millions more come to the country every year. What’s more, the musical histories of France, Germany and Italy – countries that many British people once turned their noses up musically – have all been mined to considerable acclaim, turning up wonders of Yé Yé, Krautrock and giallo respectively.

So why not Spain? There is, of course, the country’s troubled recent history: while Britain basked in the summer of love Spain was living under a military dictatorship that had no great love for pop music and would censor records that didn’t meet with its nationalist, pro-Catholic views.

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U2_Songs_of_Innocence_cover

In the days of social media, anonymous comments and secret-sharing apps, keeping anything under wraps is difficult.

But U2 and Apple managed it this week. Yes, there had been reports that U2 would take part in Apple’s iPhone 6 event and would even promote their new album. But the fact that this new album, Songs Of Innocence, would be given away free to some half a billion iTunes customers was kept a close secret and the resulting media splash when the news was announced was impressive.

What seems to have got lost in this, however, is quite what a ill-judged idea this album giveaway is, not just for Apple but for U2 themselves and the wider music industry. In fact – some U2 fans apart – it is hard to think of anyone who really benefits from the promotion.

U2

On the face of it, this seems like a pretty good deal for U2. Their new album may be on iTunes for 0 pence but the band aren’t going to lose out financially, with the New York Times claiming that Apple paid the band and their label Universal “an unspecified fee as a blanket royalty and committed to a marketing campaign for the band worth up to $100 million”.

What’s more, the band gets a stupefying amount of exposure, with their new single soundtracking TV ads for Apple’s new products and 500m people exposed to their first new album in five years.

The problem for U2, however, is one of perception. They might have got paid handsomely for the album and it is getting a traditional, paid release in October. But Songs Of Innocence will remain forever in our minds as “the free U2 album”. And the less we pay for something, the less we tend to value it.

Of course, you might argue that bands are increasingly keen on giving away their new music for free and U2 are simply following this example. But no one, for the moment, has given away an album that even approaches their best work, let alone an album that might re-start their career. Consider Jay Z: didn’t you just know when he announced plans to give away his 2013 album Magna Carta with Samsung that it would be a stinker? And weren’t you ultimately proved right?

I’m no fan of U2 so I find it hard to judge where Songs Of Innocence might lie in their catalogue. Many people will love it, of course. But early reviews suggest the album is the sound of a band treading water – “treading old ground without much of a sense of how to move forward” as The Guardian puts it. Even the band’s old friend Neil McCormick seems to struggle to find much enthusiasm for the album in his Telegraph review – and he’s thanked in the liner notes.

One argument goes that U2 will use the publicity from the new album to launch a tour. That would have maybe made sense if they announced the tour at the iPhone 6 event, or just after, when the world was watching them. But the news cycle is so fast these days that U2 will be old news again next week. The fact that their album is free – i.e. disposable – will add to that.

The other problem for U2 is this move will arguably damage their chances of ever selling us any new music again. Digital piracy has become so easy to do that, for many punters, deciding whether to shell out for an album or download it illegally has become a moral choice.

To put it another way, there are millions of essentially very normal, music loving punters out there just looking for an excuse to download music illegally for free. And the next time U2 put out an album these people have a ready-made excuse. “Your last album was free,” the argument might go, “and that seemed to turn out OK. So why should we pay for this one?”

This is hardly watertight as moral arguments go. But if you’re looking to justify a sneaky free download it will more than serve.

Other bands and labels

Whatever the effect on U2, though, this deal was at least their decision and they’re likely to benefit from it financially. The wider effect on the music business, however, is likely to impact both bands and labels who had  zero say in the deal.

For the past decade or so the music industry has struggled with the perceived value of music: an album, which used to be considered a £10 affordable luxury, has seen its value diminish thanks to aggressive price cutting (often in supermarkets), newspaper and magazine giveaways and, arguably, Radiohead’s In Rainbows “honesty box” album release scheme.

As a result, the perceived value of music as a whole has fallen, putting the music industry in the middle of a particularly unhelpful vicious circle of price cutting. U2 and Apple’s decision to give away the band’s new album for free will hardly help this.

And if U2’s new album – recorded expensively over five years with super producers such as Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth, Flood and Ryan Tedder – is being sold for 0, then how much do you think people are going to pay for your new album, recorded over a week with your guitarist on production? You’ll be lucky to get a fiver.

That is a problem for bands, of course, particularly those who can’t breeze into the world’s stadium’s ever five years for a multimillion dollar tour.

But it is a big problem for labels too. Admittedly, they are getting more of their income from streaming and other revenue sources. But music sales remain a very important part of this mix, particularly for the indies, who are unlikely to have valuable equity stakes in Spotify and Beats. And if they can’t get money from record sales, then they can’t invest in new acts.

Apple

It might be slightly over egging things to call Apple a loser in this deal. At the same time, it is hard to see what the company really gains from Songs of Innocence’s free launch.

Publicity, sure. But why would Apple want people talking about an iTunes promotion the day after it announces plans for new iPhones and the Apple Watch?

Will Apple get more iTunes users as a result? Probably. But iTunes is already installed on some 500m computers. The problem for iTunes is not one of user base – it is that download sales are falling, particularly in the US, as streaming services become ever more prominent,

Getting a big act to put their new album for sale exclusively through iTunes is a neat way of combatting this, as we saw with the Beyoncé album release last year. The eponymous release became iTunes’ fastest-selling album, shifting 828,773 copies in three days and sticking one to the likes of Spotify (where it was initially unavailable).

But giving away a new album is an entirely different kettle of fish. That’s not driving sales. It’s encouraging free downloads. And if the perceived value of music does continue to fall, well that’s bad news for the 30m odd tracks for sale through iTunes and for iTunes itself, which takes a percentage of the sale price on every track sold.

There’s also the problem of Apple’s slightly aggressive strategy for the album release, which saw Songs Of Innocence put into users’ iTunes libraries whether you liked it or not (something Popjustice memorably compared to “Bono inviting himself into my house and doing eleven shits on the floor”).

Yes, it’s hardly the greatest of tasks to simply delete the album. But I can’t be alone in keeping my iTunes rather anally curated, leaving only the best music in there and relegating anything else to an external hard drive. This release, then, feels intrusive.

And while we’re talking about streaming services, don’t forget that Apple has its own such platform, iTunes Radio, and bought Beats (home to streaming service Beats Music as well as expensive headphones) earlier this year.

Songs of Innocence is available on both these services as well as iTunes. But it is hard to see how Beats Music and iTunes Radio – two services that are crucial for Apple’s future in music – will exactly benefit from playing second fiddle to a big iTunes giveaway.

U2 fans

So who exactly does benefit the most from this album giveaway? U2 fans, largely, who you imagine will be delighted to see the band’s new release show up in their iTunes.

And U2 still have a lot of fans: their last tour, U2 360, recorded a gross of $736,137,344 and total attendance of 7,268,430 according to Billboard.

But that doesn’t mean that 7m people would have bought their new album. The band’s last release, 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, sold around 5m copies worldwide – not bad but low by U2’s standards. And album sales have dropped across the board since them.

So Songs of Innocence could, maybe, have expected to shift 3m units (at a very rough guess), maybe half of those on iTunes. That’s some 1.5m people who would have shelled out for a digital copy of the album and who have been spared the expense by Apple’s largesse. They, then, are the real winners here and are to be congratulated.

For the rest of us, though, the release remains problematic and – while giving away a new album is hardly the worst of crimes – the wider effect on the music industry will be fascinating to observe.

Daftclub

The global release of Human After All: Remixes this month means that Daft Punk now have as many remix albums to their name as decent studio long players (Human After All and the Tron Soundtrack being excepted on the grounds of inconsistency and boredom, respectively).

There’s nothing too unusual about that for a dance act, you might think, other than the fact that remixes of Daft Punk tracks are consistently awful and merit more being forgotten than being neatly packed up for history.

OK, so I’m being slightly unfair: there are a handful of very good Daft Punk remixes – Ian Pooley and DJ Sneak’s takes on Burnin’, Armand van Helden’s remix of Da Funk, Todd Edwards’ unreleased take on Face to Face and Diplo’s lively remix of Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.

But by God they are outnumbered by nonsense and these three remix albums are – at their very best – a disappointment.

Why should this be? The choice of remixers has a fair amount to do with it. The Tron remixes are a case apart – of which more later – but the band have typically supported new French producers by asking them to remix their tracks. This is admirable but the results – as seen on Cosmo Vitelli’s rinkydinkily awful remix of Face to Face or Jess & Crabbe’s artless take on Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger – are frequently so horrid that you have to wonder if the producers were overwhelmed by the task of remixing such an important act. Too much respect for the source material is rarely a good thing in a remix, after all.

But the sheer number of bad Daft Punk remixes – many of them from big, respected names –  makes this idea somewhat lacking. Even Daft Punk – themselves brilliant remixers – have struggled to remix their own material, as seen on the aimless head banging of their Maximum Overdrive mix of Robot Rock or Aerodynamite, a so-so remake of Aerodynamic.

Instead, I think the answer may come down to the specifics of Daft Punk’s music. Unlike, say, Aphex Twin or Squarepusher Daft Punk don’t radically remake electronic music in their image, pushing the boundaries of production. Instead, they do the basics of dance music – a small number of brilliant elements manipulated for maximum dance effect – very well indeed.

Take Robot Rock: there’s hardly anything to it, a couple of samples, a simple vocal and some filters. But these are assembled in such an intuitively perfect way that the song itself is excellent and could happily go on past its 4.46 length.

For remixers this poses a problem. The art of the remix typically involves taking the basic elements of a song and manipulating them in new and interesting ways to bring out otherwise understated elements. But Daft Punk’s tracks have few elements to play around with and are already perfectly aligned. So how are you going to remix them, particularly if you operate in the same basic style (house and techno) as the French duo? 

“Speaking as a songwriter, I think the reason why they’re difficult to remix is because they are primarily producers and their recordings’ strength is the production (try playing any of their tracks acoustically and you’ll find it quite unfulfilling),” says songwriter and journalist Helienne Lindvall.

“The best remixes tend to be those where the production of the original recording can be improved, where the strength lies in the melody hooks. A good example, I think, is Haim’s Falling – of which the Duke Dumont remix is widely considered to be better than the original.  Daft Punk, however, have already largely distilled the sonic picture to its essentials.”

The remixes of Daft Punk tracks that do work manage to do this, teasing some element out of the original song but never straying too far from the template. Ian Pooley’s mix of Burnin’, for example, plays around with the original’s elastic bass line to great effect, while Todd Edwards’ remix of Face to Face (a track that he co-produced, of course) is really just a tweak on the original track, speeding it up a touch and giving the drums more Edwards swing.

Armand van Helden’s Ten Minutes Of Funk mix of Da Funk is the exception to this rule, in that it genuinely sounds like a departure from the original track, which is sped up significantly, gilded with house drums and stretched over 10 minutes. Nonetheless, the remix keeps very true to the spirit of the original tune and to Daft Punk themselves, adding a sample of Tata Vega’s Get It Up For Love which feels like it could have come from the French duo’s own record boxes. Not for nothing did Daft Punk include this remix in their early live sets.

It is a masterful remix but – for some strange reason – you won’t find it on any of the group’s three remix albums. So what is there instead?

Daft Club

Daft Club was Daft Punk’s first remix album, born from an interesting, if ultimately failed, attempt at an early online fan club model. People who bought early copies of Daft Punk’s 2001 album Discovery received a card giving them membership to the club and allowing them to download various Daft Punk odds and sods from the official site, including several remixes. That the Daft Club failed was probably more due to the lack of broadband than a lack of interest. But fail it did and in 2003 the album was properly released.

On paper, Daft Club has a lot to recommend it: an unreleased track in Ouverture and remixes from the likes of NERD, Basement Jaxx, Slum Village and Daft Punk themselves. In practice, though, Daft Club proved a real disappointment: the big boys above never really clicked with the material (Basement Jaxx’s remix of Phoenix is clunkingly AWFUL) and the album gets bogged down in a wave of pointless remixes from smaller, briefly popular house producers, including Demon, Jess & Crabbe, Cosmo Vitelli and Boris Dlugosch. What’s more – with all respect in the world to Romanthony – his Unplugged mix of One More Time would probably have been better left in the studio.

The album, then, might not be quite as bad as an infamous Pitchfork review made it out to be – “To listen to Daft Club front-to-back is – and it’s pointless to exaggerate here – to watch a loved one be physically dismembered,” the reviewer opined – but it adds precisely nothing to your love or understanding of Daft Punk.

Human After All: Remixes

Human After All: Remixes, originally released in 2006 in Japan, then put on sale to the wider world earlier this month – in theory makes a lot of sense. Back in 2006 dance music was getting interesting again, with many producers taking their lead from the rockisms of Human After All, released the year before.

So surely getting a load of those new producers together – including Justice, SebastiAn and Digitalism – to remix tracks from Human After All would be a good move? Add in Daft Punk’s own Maximum Overdrive mix of Robot Rock, plus, in the 2014 release, Le Knight Club’s (aka Guy-Man from Daft Punk) mix of Technoloogic and you had to have a winner, right?

But no… Human After All: Remixes may well be the band’s best remix album but  – as we’ve already established – that’s not such an accolade. Most of the remixes are OK  – a 6/10 deal – but there’s nothing essential here, no radical reinvention that will make you see the album in a new light. That had to wait until the following year, when the band’s Alive 2007 tour successfully dragged Human After All out of the critical mire, mashing the songs together with classics from the Daft Punk catalogue.

It probably didn’t help that there’s are only a handful of really great tracks on Human After All to work from. But even so Digitalism, Justice and SebastiAn should hang their heads in shame at their mixes of Technologic and Human After All, while Soulwax’s take on Robot Rock is, essentially, the original but a little longer. It’s slick, maybe. But not very good.

Tron: Legacy Reconfigured

If you want a real Daft Punk remix stinker, though, look no further than Tron: Legacy Reconfigured, a remix album released in 2011 to coincide with the home video release of Tron: Legacy (hoooray!).

So bad is it, in fact, that former Daft Punk manager Pedro Winter felt moved to write a note of complaint, accusing Disney Records of taking “my robots friends so far away from good taste?”

“Of course some of it is nice, and you know there are some of my friends on this CD. But this is not enough!” he added.

“A masterpiece like TRON soundtrack deserved the best and I am sad to discover the A&R at Disney records is apparently buying most of his electronic music in airports stores…”

Ooof. He does, however, have a pretty good point on the airports: a stranger, less fitting line up of remixers for Daft Punk would be difficult to find that the motley crew on Legacy Reconfigured, which includes The Crystal Method, Moby, Paul Oakenfold, Kaskade, Avicii and Sander Kleinenberg.

I know… I know.

On the positive side, there was some vaguely appropriate names in Boyz Noize and M83 and three good if strange choices in Photek, Com Truise and Pretty Lights. But who the hell The Glitch Mob, Teddybears and Ki:Theory are – and what on earth they’re doing on a Daft Punk album – remains a mystery to this day.

And the results…. well they are as bad as you might expect. Although the unexpected bonus is that the remixers have been chose with so little care and attention that it doesn’t feel like listening to Daft Punk at all. Which is something of a silver lining in the circumstances.