You won’t need to visit Urban Dictionary to know what chill out means. But this invitation to relax came to signify a certain kind of horizontal, downbeat electronic music that came about as club culture really hit its stride in the UK at the dawn of the 1990s.
An alternative to the frenetic beats played at raves and in clubs, chill out was the music you’d hear in the back rooms and ‘chill out areas’, where revelers would go to decompress and cool down. Ambient had existed long before, coined in the '70s by Brian Eno to describe his drifting soundscapes. Chill out, though, combined ambient electronics with dub, the sample cut’n’paste magic of hip-hop and gentle rhythms to create something soothing, playful and sometimes deeply emotional too.
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Initially characterised by the echo-flecked, somnambulant beats of Dr Alex Paterson’s The Orb project, and by the spacious DJ sets of Mixmaster Morris, what started out as a new kind of ambient music morphed over the course of the 1990s to encompass new influences. Its popularity boomed first with clubbers wanting something to listen to during post-club sessions, and blossomed into an industry of its own. Café Del Mar reigned supreme as the top chill out destination in Ibiza, the notion of chilling out became mainstream and compilations flooded the market to cash in at the beginning of the 2000s. But it lives on in a variety of fresh forms today. Here are our Top 10 chill out tracks across the years…
1. Art Of Noise – Moments In Love (1984)
Among the first tunes that could realistically claim the chill out tag, this curiosity from 1980s super producer Trevor Horn (better known for crafting pop mega-hits with Buggles, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Yes) demonstrated not just his command of at the time state-of-the-art electronic music production, but also his visionary arrangements. Moments In Love, with its haunting synth choir notes, orchestral stabs, tender melodic counterpoint and proto trip-hop beat, unwittingly set the tone for what was to come.
2. The KLF – Chill Out (1990)
Technically an album, but how could we not include this? Among the records to kick-start the appetite for ambient at the start of the ’90s, this sublime smudge of found sounds, fragments of Americana, electronic washes, the voice of Elvis, and – bizarrely – sheep was an early blueprint for the music The Orb and others would later claim as their own. Of course, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty are better known for their strange forays into dance pop, but that’s another story.
3. The Orb – Little Fluffy Clouds (1991)
The Orb are the archetypal chill out act. Comprising mastermind Dr Alex Paterson and rotating personnel over the years, ranging from The KLF’s Jimmy Cauty to current spar Thomas Fehlmann, in their early '90s pomp they were the closest you got to ambient superstars. Made by clever interlacing of samples from Steve Reich and Pat Metheny’s Electric Counterpoint, an iconic monologue cribbed from Ricki Lee Jones and bubbling synths, Little Fluffy Clouds is – despite its house beat – a true talisman of the genre, the quintessential chill out tune.
4. Orbital – Belfast (1991)
If any tune embodies the post-rave fuzzy afterglow, it’s Orbital’s Belfast. Its tender melodies, transcendent choir voices, spiralling arpeggios and breakbeats combined in a unique package – utterly unlike the Hartnoll brothers’ other material.
5. Coldcut – Autumn Leaves (Irresistible Force Mix) (1993)
Mixmaster Morris is perhaps the best-known ambient DJ, and this remix under his Irresistible Force moniker sure takes some beating. Transplanting the Coldcut version of a bittersweet jazz standard into a shimmering forest of cascading synths echoing off into infinity, it’s both soporific and hugely emotional.
6. Air – All I Need (1997)
As the '90s progressed, chill out came to absorb other sounds and welcomed acts with new ideas into the fold. French duo Air’s Moon Safari album was a multi-platinum seller, indicating the appetite for mellow beats during this era, but their blend of subtle electronics, gentle lounge beats, folk guitar and 1970s funk touches was never better than on this reflective space ballad, made all the more potent by Beth Hirsch’s plangent vocal.
7. Talvin Singh – Traveller (Kid Loco’s Once Upon a Time in the East Mix) (1998)
A meeting of two musically vibrant minds – that of British-Indian tabla player and electronic fusioneer Talvin Singh and French beatsmith Kid Loco – resulted in this ice-cool blend. The haunting Indian classical strings and Loco’s somnolent drums seal the deal on a sundown classic.
8. St Germain – Sure Thing (2000)
Another French artist with an ear tilted towards the classics, St Germain’s record Tourist filched samples from Nina Simone, among others, but his ingenious compound of funk track Windy C by 100% Pure Poison and John Lee Hooker’s Harry’s Philosophy was a groove straight from the fridge and could be heard everywhere upon the release of its attendant album.
9. Midlake – Roscoe (Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve Remix) 2007
A fresh direction for downbeat music, this gorgeous psychedelic concoction from Erol Alkan and Richard Norris’ project took the Fleetwood Mac-indebted indie rock of the original and sent it into a psychotropic tailspin of aquatic keyboards, backwards guitar and steady, dusty drums.
10. Kiasmos – Held (2014)
Icelandic duo Kiasmos typify chill out’s current direction. One half neo-classical artist Ólafur Arnalds, known for the soundtrack to TV show Broadchurch and many solo works, and the other Janus Rasmussen of the band Bloodgroup, their dubstep-influenced, techno-infused beats occasionally drift into calmer territories, like the melancholy Held, with its diaphanous piano, clipped beat and dramatic strings. (The fusion of classical and electronics is, in many senses, a new manifestation of chill out, and along with Nils Frahm, Max Richter and Ben Lukas Boysen, Kiasmos are leading the way).
Listen to Kiasmos live at Reworks in the Red Bull Radio player below.
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