Back to the Retro-Future: How the Sounds of Last Century Are Making the Music of a New Millennium

By: Jonathan Plotkin

You slowly drive your Pontiac Grand Am along the darkened alleys of the underbelly of a diseased city, where neon signs shine permanently half lit through the neverending rain. Or maybe you’re cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway in your Ferrari Testarossa Spider, roof down, wind in your hair, shades on even though it’s midnight. Or perhaps you just broke into the mainframe of MegaCORP’s servers and now are currently whizzing your way down the electronic super highway with their top secret files in your grasp. Whatever you find yourself doing right now, the soundtrack to your various exploits all sounds surprisingly familiar and yet new at the same time.

Retro-futuristic music, as I like to call it, is music that sounds like it was written in the 80s but somehow reaches into the future with its sound. It conjures a similar aesthetic to cyperpunk fiction, envisioning a neon-soaked synthesizer-addled future that in some alternate timeline is occurring at this very moment. My first experience with the sound was probably the movie Tron: Legacy, but it wasn’t until a few years later when I saw Drive did I really understand there was more than one artist making music like this. Who would have thought that there was a whole subgenre of people making purely electronic music that emphasized synthesizers as their main body of work, instead of using them just for effects?

What makes retro-future music so unique in my mind is how well it inspires various emotions without any lyrics or even standard song structure. While of course those are never required to make a great track, I find it rather impressive how tracks like “Retrogenesis” by Perturbator or “Hydrogen” by M|O|O|N never fail to make me think I’ve been transported to a decaying city to perform horribly violent crime of some form or another. The pulsing basslines and dark, moody synths conjure up entire cityscapes in my mind that could easily have acted as backgrounds for Blade Runner. Conversely, artists like Kavinsky and Starcadian have a lighter mood in their work. The former’s “Nightcall” (i.e. that song from Drive) and the latter’s album Sunset Blood have a slower beat and generally feel less claustrophobic. They make me want to slow down and take in the sights around me, instead of speeding through the grime to get out of town. Meanwhile, other artists strive for expansive sound. Vangelis’ score for Blade Runner could be argued to have kick-started this entire genre, while Pilotpriest’s Original Motion Picture Soundtrack instantly transports the listener to a world light years away from ours, with wide open galaxies where starships zip across the skies and attacks ship burn off the shoulder of Orion.

Of course you can’t classify a huge genre of music like this into 3 groups, despite the vast amount of evidence that supports the validity of the rule of three in writing. Artists like Com Truise make music that sounds more like it belongs in a late 80s or early 90s film about computer hackers where no one really understood how computers worked (like the original Tron or Hackers if the latter didn’t have so much drum and’ bass). Then there’s bands like Kraftwerk, where you wonder if they count as retro-future since it wasn’t retro when they wrote their stuff but they sure sounded like the future. And of course there are composers for indie video game soundtracks, who more and more frequently will post the entire soundtrack on the internet for at home listening. These artists sometimes combine a multitude of genres, from downtempo, to synth, to chiptune to create tracks that in one way, each tell a small part of a larger story.

But now we’re splitting hairs, so who cares? The important thing is that even in this age of easy technology, where everyone who has an internet connection can become a musician, there is still really unique and intriguing stuff out there. Why not pursue sounds of the past to create the music of the future? Retro-futuristic music might inspire you to write the next great cyberpunk novel or just put on a pair of headphones and enjoy the ride. Either way, the sounds are out there, for you to do with them what you will.

Looking to start listening to this genre but are struggling for a good jumping off point? The soundtrack to Drive, though largely an original work composed by Cliff Martinez, has some wonderful tracks by Kavinsky, Chromatics, and more. The Hotline Miami soundtrack is over 90 minutes of pulsing songs by Sun Araw, Jasper Byrne, and many other equally talented artists. Additionally, be sure to tune into Midnight Drive, Tuesdays from midnight to 1 AM with Peter Liu on WKDU 91.7 FM for the best 80s inspired synths, the perfect way to enhance your late-night driving experience.

For a wider range of electronic music, check out Jonathan’s personal show, Dr. Plotkin’s Majikal Love X-Perience, Wednesday nights from 10 PM to midnight on WKDU and be sure to follow him on Twitter @doctorplotkin for more musings about music.

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Crispy Chris’s Top 10 Electronic Chart

By Chris Burrell

Guys, I’ve never done a chart before, so consider this my chart cherry! These are 10 tracks that have frequently found their way into my recent mixes and general listening. Some of these tracks are built squarely for the club, some are more for headphones, some are new, and some have been out there a while, but all are good. No particular order.

Canblaster – I Think About U (Marble)

A flat out just good song – I wish it were longer! Brodinski said it was his favorite song of 2013. The song opens up with a looping, “I don’t know what I was thinking about most of the time…” while a heavenly beat builds. Can you guess what they were thinking about?

Jamie Lidell – You Naked (Crackboy Remix) (Warp)

I picked up this track from a pink 12” of remixes at Princeton Record Exchange and was hype to see that the seldom releasing Crackboy was one of the remixers on it. The elusive French producer tweaks Lidell’s amazing voice around one hook, and builds a monstrous swinging beat for a slamming good time. What’s even cooler is that I can’t find this track anywhere digitally (this video has like 500 views) – viva vinyl.

Moderat – Bad Kingdom (Head High Remix) (50Weapons)

I had no clue who Head High is (later figured out that it’s one of the many aliases of German producer Shed), but I trust Modeselektor & their 50Weapons imprint, so no surprise that this is a damn good remix. The vocals haunt throughout the chugging drum-heavy track: “This is not what you wanted, nor what you had in mind…”

Four Tet – Buchla (Text)

I love the new Four Tet album, and this is definitely a standout track from it for me. The beat is super raw and bumps, but then it gets all soft and melodic before going back in. Four Tet’s always been the king of samples and interesting music; this one makes me dance more than chin scratch.

Paul Johnson – Let Me See You Butterfly (DJ Deeon Remix) (Mr Kim’s Records)

I’ve definitely fallen victim to the recent resurgence in legendary Chicago house label Dance Mania (a retrospective compilation on the label just came out), and that victimization led me to this amazing track. Take everything that’s great about ghetto house: fast paced beating drums and bass, dirty vocals, raw energy, and then add in a super melodic beat flip, and BOOM – you have this track. DJ Deeon definitely shows his depth as a producer on this remix, I play it both faster and slower in mixes – really whenever I can.

Duck Sauce – Party In Me (Fool’s Gold)

Duck Sauce’s funky, fresh, and simple songs tend to come out as the weather gets warm, and give me all kinds of reasons to smile. This track was released for free as part of the duo’s “Duck Droppings” EP, preceding their first album “Quack”, out on April 15th. All of the tracks are great, and lean wonderfully on samples (look them up), but this track is so damn catchy, and I find myself playing it on loop all the time.

Sammy Bananas – Flexin (Fool’s Gold)

Once you listen to this track, the cover for this very solid EP (Mr. Flex: a banana with a mustache, sunglasses, and biceps) makes total sense. Long time label affiliate Sammy Bananas melds dance-y futuristic and vintage sounds for a party starting results. This track hits with just the right amount of horns, blips, and sleaze.

Jessie Rose – Love the Feeling High (feat. Ed Weathers) (Play It Down)

A great recent example of using speeches/dialogue/spoken word over a house beat. The beat is funky and simple, and then a male storyteller is added over top, hilariously recounting a crazy trip at a warehouse party with “kids that are way more turnt up than me.” Play It Down, the label Jessie Rose runs, has had a string of great releases, and his new album “The Whole Twelve Inches” (which this track is a part of) and all of its remixes, definitely should continue the label’s strong momentum well into 2014.

Aden – Whip (Jimmy Edgar Remix) (Ultramajic)

I was in a hotel room in India listening to Claude VonStroke’s Essential Mix, and he started his mix off with this track. I had only heard the original up until that point (which is a bomb), and I could have picked almost any of the tracks from the young Ultramajic label for this list, but this remix from label boss Jimmy Edgar is particularly doing it for me and has a poignant memory attached to it. Edgar has been on fire lately, turning everything he touches into drummed out techno bliss; I definitely look forward to more from him and his label this year.

Jeremih – F U All The Time (Akito’s Clap Trap Ice Rink Bootleg) (Bootleg)

I love the original of this song, but was looking for just the right remix of it to use in mixes. A little SoundCloud digging later, I came across this free download, whose genre is listed as “Porn Groove”. The original of this is super hypnotic and weird, and this bootleg cleverly blends the instrumental of UK Grime artist Wiley’s “Ice Rink”, making it more of a DJ tool, and still keeping the weird of the original.


Peep some of these tracks on the Halfway House, Thursdays 10pm-12, and tweet @ me, bro @CrispyChrisX

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Top played albums 4/1- 4/8

1 ST. VINCENT: St. Vincent
3 TYCHO: Awake
4 WARPAINT: Warpaint
6 MAC DEMARCO: Salad Days
8 WAR ON DRUGS: Lost In The Dream
10 EAGULLS: Eagulls
11 EL TEN ELEVEN: For Emily [EP]
12 COM TRUISE: Wave 1
14 PERFECT PUSSY: Say Yes To Love
15 DAN CROLL: Sweet Disarray
17 METRONOMY: Love Letters
18 LIARS: Mess
19 CLOUD NOTHINGS: Here And Nowhere Else
21 DADS: Pretty Good [EP]
22 MARK MCGUIRE: Along The Way
23 ETERNAL SUMMERS: The Drop Beneath
24 DUM DUM GIRLS: Too True
25 SISYPHUS: Sisyphus
26 JUAN WAUTERS: N.A.P. North American Poetry
27 S. CAREY: Range Of Light
29 BOY AND BEAR: Harlequin Dream
30 BLACK LIPS: Underneath The Rainbow

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Top Played Artists 3/18-3/24

2 ST. VINCENT – St. Vincent
4 WAR ON DRUGS – Lost In The Dream
5 GUIDED BY VOICES – Motivational Jumpsuit
6 JUAN WAUTERS – N.A.P. North American Poetry
7 BLACK LIPS – Underneath The Rainbow
8 WARPAINT – Warpaint
9 AVA LUNA – Electric Balloon
10 DUM DUM GIRLS – Too True
11 HURRAY FOR THE RIFF RAFF – Small Town Heroes
13 SISYPHUS – Sisyphus
14 SNOWMINE – Dialects
16 TEMPLES – Sun Structures
17 TOY – Join The Dots
19 LO-FANG – Blue Film
20 ETERNAL SUMMERS – The Drop Beneath
21 PERFECT PUSSY – Say Yes To Love
22 WOODSMAN – Woodsman
23 CHEATAHS – Cheatahs
24 JAKE BUGG – Shangri-la
26 CEO – Wonderland
27 FALLS – Into The Fire [EP]
28 SLEEPY SUN – Maui Tears
29 NENEH CHERRY – Blank Project
30 DRY HEEVES – Boogie Till Ya Puke

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Top Played Artists 3/11-3/17

1    ST. VINCENT – St. Vincent
2    REAL ESTATE  – Atlas
4    GUIDED BY VOICES – Motivational Jumpsuit
5    BLACK LIPS – Underneath The Rainbow
6    AVA LUNA – Electric Balloon
7    WARPAINT – Warpaint
8    DUM DUM GIRLS – Too True
9    HURRAY FOR THE RIFF RAFF – Small Town Heroes
10    TEMPLES – Sun Structures
11    SNOWMINE – Dialects
12    JUAN WAUTERS – N.A.P. North American Poetry
13    TOGETHER PANGEA – Badillac
14    TOY – Join The Dots
15    PYPY – Pagan Day
16    CHERRY GLAZERR – Haxel Princess
17    MODERN BASEBALL – You’re Gonna Miss It All
18    NATURAL CHILD – Dancin’ With Wolves
19    SLEEPY SUN – Maui Tears
21    WARM SODA – Young Reckless Hearts
22    DEVIL MAKES THREE – I’m A Stranger Here
23    DISTRICTS – The Districts [EP]
24    SKATERS – Manhattan
25    MARK MCGUIRE – Along The Way
26    CASKET GIRLS – True Love Kills The Fairy Tale
27    NOTHING – Guilty Of Everything
28    ETERNAL SUMMERS -The Drop Beneath
29    DAMAGED BUG – Hubba Bubba
30    PAUL RUSKE – Uncertain Times

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Top Played Artists 3/4-3/10

3 GUIDED BY VOICES – Motivational Jumpsuit
4 SNOWMINE – Dialects
5 TEMPLES – Sun Structures
6 WARPAINT – Warpaint
7 TOY – Join The Dots
8 ST. VINCENT – St. Vincent
10 MODERN BASEBALL – You’re Gonna Miss It All
11 DEVIL MAKES THREE – I’m A Stranger Here
12 HURRAY FOR THE RIFF RAFF – Small Town Heroes
14 SKATERS – Manhattan
15 DISTRICTS – The Districts [EP]
16 JUAN WAUTERS – N.A.P. North American Poetry
18 BOY AND BEAR – Harlequin Dream
19 JAKE BUGG – Shangri-la
20 PAUL RUSKE – Uncertain Times
22 NATURAL CHILD – Dancin’ With Wolves
23 HOSPITALITY – Trouble
24 DUM DUM GIRLS – Too True
25 SLOTHRUST – Of Course You Do
26 BAND OF HORSES – Acoustic At The Ryman
27 MOZES AND THE FIRSTBORN – Mozes And The Firstborn
28 ANGEL OLSEN – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
29 BLONDFIRE – Young Heart
30 EAGULLS – Eagulls

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Top Played Artists 2/25-3/3

1 TEMPLES – Sun Structures
2 WARPAINT – Warpaint
4 SNOWMINE – Dialects
5 GUIDED BY VOICES – Motivational Jumpsuit
6 BAND OF HORSES – Acoustic At The Ryman
7 MODERN BASEBALL – You’re Gonna Miss It All
8 TOY – Join The Dots
9 DISTRICTS – The Districts [EP]
10 JUAN WAUTERS – N.A.P. North American Poetry
11 JAKE BUGG – Shangri-la
15 NATURAL CHILD – Dancin’ With Wolves
16 SLOTHRUST – Of Course You Do
17 PAINTED PALMS – Forever
18 SOLIDS – Blame Confusion
19 ANGEL OLSEN – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
20 HOSPITALITY – Trouble
21 DEVIL MAKES THREE – I’m A Stranger Here
23 TINARIWEN – Emmaar
24 CIBO MATTO – Hotel Valentine
25 SPEEDY ORTIZ – Real Hair [EP]
26 BLONDFIRE – Young Heart
27 MARK MCGUIRE – Along The Way
28 BROKEN BELLS – After The Disco
29 PYPY – Pagan Day
30 CASKET GIRLS – True Love Kills The Fairy Tale

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