Above & Beyond have made some good albums, but the album is not the ideal vessel for their strengths. In his roundup of 1990s albums 15 years ago, music critic Ned Raggett noted that the album could eventually be dislodged as the dominant unit of musical consumption. While it remains venerable in rock and hip-hop, the album – with a few exceptions, such as Deadmau5’s While (1<2) and Andrew Bayer’s It’s Artificial – provides less insight into many EDM artists’ talents than singles and podcasts, two media that A&B have mastered. Their Group Therapy podcast really is a post-album format that retains some of the album’s trappings – coherence, flow/transition – while making everything multi-tenanted and casual. And their impressive catalog of singles can and often does fill out the primary and flashback portions of the show.
#10: Walter White
How will we remember Breaking Bad? I thought it peaked with the antepenultimate episode, “Ozymandias,” with the final two somehow managing to be simultaneously drawn-out and rushed. That said, listening to the digital-only release “Walter White” brings back better memories than recalling “Felina.”
The distinctive screeches of “Walter White” still adorn the intro to each Group Therapy episode, but they’re not even the best part of the song. There’s the drop at 1:31 that, considering the context and title, I’ll always associate with Walt crossing the point of no return during the conflict at the trailer. Then there’s the airiness at 2:46 and the melodic line at around 3:00 that is as clear as the blue crystals that Walt and Jesse cook. The background vox at 3:29 are in keeping with the frequent EDM usage of Morricone-like arrangements, but they work especially well here, since the imagery and the narrative are, well, like something from a latter-day Spaghetti Western.
#9: Sticky Fingers
Let’s start with the title. This song is catchy and punchy enough to make you think it’s a cover of a long-lost original version of the title track to the Rolling Stones’ 1971 classic album, Sticky Fingers. The video, inspired by Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo, is also rockist, with the band playing traditional instruments while Alex Vargas moves around like…well, Mick Jagger. It’s the most rock song they’ve done, both in sound and presentation.
“Sticky Fingers” is unusual in the non-OceanLab A&B catalog because of its tremendous vocal hook. Like the also Vargas-fronted “Blue Sky Action,” it has an unforgettable refrain (and those background vocals! presumably from Tony McGuinness). The piano, which goes in and out of the mix, is very 90s – I thought of Endtroducing… . The song’s thrust is as powerful as “Hello” or “Mariana Trench,” but works so much better with Vargas’ vocals.
#8: Breaking Ties
Justine Suissa has a way of conveying simultaneous despair and hope that is different form any other trance chanteuse. Her extraordinary interpretations are naturally suited for songs that go above and beyond the typical EDM and trance templates.
Witness “Breaking Ties.” It’s like a 1990s chill out ballad (indebted to Massive Attack) lifted by a novel acoustic guitar, percussion, and Suissa’s beautiful “You and I/truth and lies” refrain. “Satellite” may be more tuneful, but “Breaking Ties” is the OceanLab song that shines with A&B’s ear for melody and arrangement.
“Anphonic” is exemplary of what A&B and the rest of the Anjunabeats stable have been good at for so long – a big buildup that pays off in unexpected melody. This collaboration with Kyau & Albert is the standout tune from Anjunabeats 8 and a fine technical specimen.
The crunching build-up is woven back in with the delightful midsection chords, foreshadowing the later achievements of “Walter White” and providing a blueprint for both “Hello” and “Mariana Trench.” I ranked it as the second best if the group’s many great collaborations.
#6: Far From in Love
“Far From in Love” was A&B’s first single, released in 2002, but this early effort ranks up there with their later work. The ingredients of A&B’s magic are here – the sultry vocal from Cate Cameron, the tunefulness, and the atmosphere that yields itself so well to reinterpretation.
It made sense that, according to Tony McGuinness on an episode Group Therapy, “Far From in Love” was the inspiration for the sound on Acoustic. Even from the start, A&B were up to things bigger than EDM and trance as traditionally conceived.
#5: Sun & Moon
The Group Therapy artist album that spawned the podcast of the same name always seemed weaker than either Tri-State or Acoustic. That’s not to say it lacks standouts – “Sun & Moon” is one of A&B’s finest tunes.
Front-and-center vocals on non-OceanLab A&B tracks were rare before this one. Airy voices like those of Zoe Johnston and Hannah Thomas were perfect accompaniments to A&B’s early work, though there were some signs of using male vocals, such as “Stealing Time” and “For All I Care.”
Richard Bedford’s voice is seasoned with experience and a little darkness. The imagery he has to work with here – suns, moons, big roulette wheels – taps into A&B’s tradition of unexpected lyrical richness and insight. The “big wheel” part in particular reminds me of the final track from Massive Attack’s 1991 album – “Hymn of the Big Wheel.”
#4: Air for Life
Tri-State is a singular achievement in EDM and trance because of how it extends those genres into strange territory – piano quasi-balladry, alt-rock, folk – without seeming heavy-handed or out of its depth. “Air for Life,” while not as gloriously off-kilter as “Home,” “Good for Me,” or “For All I Care,” foreshadowed all of the album’s strengths when it came out in 2005.
There’s so much going on here, in both the front and back of the mix. Then there’s the vocal that floats atop the controlled chaos like air, apropos. Done with Andy Moor, this was a breakthrough and probably their most pivotal collaboration.
OceanLab’s Sirens of the Sea Remixed album may be the most listenable LP in the entire Anjunabeats catalog. It’s one killer tune after another, and none is more killer than “Satellite.”
It has the best of rock balladry and EDM without the weaknesses of either. That’s to say, it has sensitive lyrics with rich imagery (“I’m like footsteps in the snow / I’ll follow you everywhere you go.”) and a propulsive, tuneful surge, but never seems saccharine or boring.
I come back to “Satellite” more than any other A&B song, though I’ve ranked it third since I think it doesn’t say as much about why they’re special as the top two do. I’m not the only one who can’t leave it alone; Ilan Bluestone did a remix of it this year, a decade after its original release.
#2: No One on Earth
Lyrics aren’t a strong suit of EDM or trance. Leave it to A&B to weave songs that are as remarkable for their words as for their music.
While “Satellite” is a good poem, it can’t match the strangeness and lyricism of “No One on Earth” from 2004, which paints a picture of an alien or savage coming to rescue an often-spurned lover.
“Down through the dark trees
You came to save me
You’re so ugly and you’re so beautiful
You’re like no one on earth could be”
Not your standard EDM or trance fare. And the musical backing is just as surreal, with a nuanced performance from Zoe Johnston that highlights the strengths of her different registers. The original, with the breathy middle section, is my favorite, though the Gabriel & Dresden remix, which I heard on their 2004 album Bloom, is somehow even more dramatic.
#1: Good for Me
I first started listening to trance and EDM via the Ultra Trance/Ultra Dance and In Search of Sunrise CD series. I discovered Above and Beyond, Deadmau5 and may others through these volumes. The best discovery, though, was the King Roc Vocal Mix of “Good for Me,” the first A&B track I ever heard.
I remember thinking that the title was such a nice reversal of the sarcastic cliche “good for you” – “Good for Me” is the opposite, a sincere letter to a loved one. The delayed vocals cut through the fog of that morning – I was in my dorm at 7am, studying for a Latin exam, while it rained outside – and I listened to it probably 10 times during that study session.
Why? The melody, the ambience, Zoe Johnston’s vocals – “Good for Me” is not easily forgotten, and is as suitable for a dance floor as a wedding. It’s worked in seemingly every imaginable form: a club mix, a dub mix, an acoustic reading, and of course the airy, beatless original, which is the centerpiece of 2006’s masterful Tri-State. More than any other single, it shows all of A&B’s strengths simultaneously – the focus on tuneful composition, the knack for unusual arrangement, and the perfect pairing of melody and lyrics.