The dog days and nights of summer are the perfect times for some chilled beats. So while I was working on my new book to a Pandora downtempo station, I started mentally putting together a list of some of the better tunes in the genre.
The slow beats of downtempo (or alternately, chill out) electronic music are ubiquitous. They are a staple part of coffee house soundtracks, movie scores, and TV show music montages (and great for office work). But mixed in with the background noise are some really good singers, DJs, and composers. And there are some great songs, songs that stand out from the meandering drone of much electronic music. These are not necessarily the most representative of the genre, nor the most well-known; they are simply 15 great tracks.
Most downtempo follows the same basic principles — ambient-like melodies, drowsy yet sharp backbeats, diverse influences, and a sense of place. All great chill out/downtempo is at its heart evocative. And they almost all have female vocals, save for the instrumentals. When it comes to downtempo, male vocals don’t make the cut. The women rule here; the flexibility in their voices is a far better pairing with the music’s languid rhythmic structure.
I can be pedantic when it comes to types of music; so I'm fully prepared to incur the wrath of fellow genre nitpickers with this list I threw in a trip hop tune here and a quasi-pop song there. I do think they all belong under the same big chillout tent, though.
There are dozens of great songs not listed (Air’s “La Feme D’Argent”, Rae & Christian’s “Swimming Pool”, anything by Thievery Corporation, etc.) I look forward to hearing some others in the comments.
1. Everything But The Girl – “No Difference”
One of my favorite songs of all time, by one of my favorite female vocalists of all time, Tracey Thorn. Absolutely flawless musically, combining a sharp backbeat, swirling atmospheric melodies, and an ethereal horn sample. Lyrically, Thorn delivers some of her sharpest lines. (You watch the phone/ like it was a TV/If you’re all alone/ well, whose fault can that be/Your keys, your bags, your car/There where they always are).
2. Kate Rogers – “Fine”
This is tight chillout. Really tight. No stray notes, narrow, pulsing, vibrant, with a sweet sax sample. Kate Rogers is one of those under-the-radar vocalists you wish everyone would know and love. Find it and listen to the Canadian chanteuse delivers the chorus with sly, restrained power, (I’ve been lost like you/Been every shade of blue/But somehow I know things will work out/Fine).
3. Boards of Canada – “Roygbiv”
Easily the catchiest two minutes and 39 seconds in the history of electronic music. Boards combines pastoral landscapes with digital and analog synths, effortlessly blending in laconic beats. Nowhere was that done better than with “Roygbiv”.
4. Sofa Surfers – “Sofa Rockers (Richard Dorfmeister remix)
Austrian trip-hop duo Kruder & Dorfmeister took fellow Austrians’ Sofa Surfers tune and remixed it for their 1998 release, The K&D Sessions. The result is a harmonic feast for the ears. It’s a spacey, jazz-influenced track that really transports the listener, simplistic in melody, unforgettable in execution.
5. Zero 7 – “In the Waiting Line”
An obvious choice, this Sophie Barker fronted song is Downtempo 101. It was a mid-sized hit for Zero 7 when it came out, and got even greater exposure when Zack Braff used it in the movie Garden State. But it’s such a damn fine downtempo song.
6. Emilina Torrini – “Wednesday’s Child”
There’s a short video for this song on Youtube; two people are driving around on a rainy day through some European town, smoking cigarettes as the camera peer out onto the bleary suburban landscape. It’s about the best mix of image and music that you can find. This Icelandic singer may not have Bjork’s musical vision or vocal force, but her trip-hop tinged debut gave the world this moody masterpiece.
7. Portishead – “The Rip”
Trip hop’s grand masters threw a curve ball with their (really) long awaited third record. Eschewing much of trip hop’s trappings, they blasted out dissonant rhythmic adventures. This, however, was one pure song — sparse, acoustic, and emotive. I highly recommend looking up the live version of “Rip” that the band did in April of 2008 on the Later With Jools Holland show. Jaw-dropping.
8. Saru – “Bamboo Shadow”
This instrumental track brings together organic elements of traditional percussion with slinky and winding rhythms more in line with a funk song than downtempo. A good daytime chillout track.
9. Beth Orton – “Stars All Seem to Weep”
Beth Orton’s voice warbles and wails; it’s thin, yet not inconsequential. Walking the thin end of the wedge between Lilith Fair and clubland, Orton’s 1999 CD Central Reservation was part singer-songwriter, part dense electronic loops. This choice cut is a chillout classic.
10. Soma Sonic – “Simplicity”
Dominic and Francois Paterson, brothers from the Great White North, brought their country's cold icescapes to the recording studio with this soulful, lounge-y downtempo track, bringing a frozen pastoral ambience to chillout. Christelle Pehcin’s vocals sit behind the mix, drifting far from the beat. The piano break is a masterstroke.
11. Massive Attack – “Protection”
Tracey Thorn’s 2nd appearance on the list is this Massive Attack track, a staple of coffeehouses and upscale boutiques. The album version clocks in at close to seven minutes; the blend of old-school R&B, trip-hop, and chillout coupled with Tracey Thorn’s vocals make for essential 3am listening.
12/13. Symbion Project- “Soft Tempest” /Ulrich Schnauus –“ Between Us and Them”
Two of the best downtempo instrumental pieces; both are just over seven minutes long, with meandering looping melodies, densely intricate percussion, and otherworldly effects yet enough hooks to make them memorable.
14. Billie Holiday – “Speak Low (Bent Remix)”
Bent took the classic Billie Holiday version and gave it a swirling structure centered on a melancholy melody, evoking the retro styling of the original. The beat is almost bossa nova. This is a remix that might transcend the original- blasphemy to some, I’m sure.
15. Mantra, featuring Linda Oliveri – “Lullaby”
Cheesy downtempo for the Jersey Shore? Maybe, but it’s a catchy song with atmospheric music and solid vocals that makes for an unexpected surprise. This one is hard to find, but worth the search.