Between the liner notes of each Astralwerks release lies the story of electronic music. The American record label was formed in 1993 by Brian Long as an imprint of Brit-rock label Caroline Records. Immediately, it’s mission was to give a home to electronic musicians, and within five years, it secured its place as a leader and innovator in the scene.
From its early ambient works through the hay day of electronica into the indie-dance revolution and EDM’s big stand, Astralwerks has released some of the most notable and important electronic music albums in history.
Astralwerls earned its first hit the year that it launched. Seefeel’s debut LP was an emotional, instrumental epic that hit the mark for electronic and indie rock fans alike. Released in the wake of Aphex Twin’s popular Selected Ambient Works 85-92, it’s optimistic and dreamlike soundscapes were praised by critics, drawing comparisons to Cocteau Twins and shoegaze trends. Quique helped give the label a voice and stands strong as a beatific example of its atmospheric roots.
In 1994, Astralwerks hired Peter Wohelski as Head of Artists and Repertoire (A&R). He’s been credited with discovering Manchester duo The Chemical Brothers, who went on to become not only one of the biggest signings for the nascent label but one of the most innovative and timeless acts in electronic music, period. The group’s sophomore LP mixed breakbeat with psychedelic rock to define the late ’90s big beat movement. Hits “Block Rockin’ Beats,” “Elektrobank,” and “Setting Sun” got blood pumpin’ from the U.K. to the U.S. Billboard Charts, appealing to rockers and ravers the world over and ushering in a new electronic era.
One of the most exciting album intros you’ll ever hear is the exotic rush of Fatboy Slim’s “Right Here, Right Now” from this 1998 sophomore masterpiece. It followed in the footsteps of The Chemical Brothers. Hard-hitting, funk flexin’ madness, spawning international generational anthems “The Rockafeller Skank,” “Gangsta Tripping” and “Praise You.” Fatboy’s irreverent flavors and cross-genre style made him an instant icon, and while his productions these days are few and far between, this LP will always be a must-have in any collection.
Another stellar sophomore that demands mention. French space popper Air’s Moon Safari struck sensual and edgy chords with audiences around the world. Its downtempo, dreamy moods aligned with Astralwerks roots while its growling synths and disco sheen of “Sexy Boy” and “Kelly Watch The Stars” stood out with the electronica crowd. It’s one of the most romantic albums on Astralwerks’ roster and remains a classic more than 20 years later.
This debut from French House duo Cassius is a remarkable work of sample-based funk and an underground classic. Philippe Zdar and Boombass came together to create a 16-track stunner that shone bright with muted grooves that turned well-known Al Green, The Whispers, and Gang Starr hits into something completely different. It’s rich layers of sound come to life in headphones, mixing and matching sounds of disco and hip-hop to create a signature sound that makes Cassius one of the best French house acts to ever rip a loop.
The French and the Brits aren’t the only ones allowed to have fun. Enter Norwegian duo Royksopp, whose debut LP, Melody A.M., surfed the wave of feel-good ambiance and chill-hop beats to new melodic heights. Melody A.M. brought more jazzy boombap to the table that Astralwerks’ previous releases, but the glittering synths of “Eple” and bleep bloops of “Royksopp’s Night Out” fit in right at home. Album standout “Remind Me” was a hit for the band, an easygoing bop as bittersweet as it is intergalactic.
A decade into its legacy, Astralwerks had built a reputation for spotting up-and-coming talent destined to become legends. It was only fitting that the label team with the founders of the electronic genre. Kraftwerk is the heart and the spine of everything that came in its wake and Astralwerks released the foursome’s first-ever live album, a two-disc, 22-song collection that encapsulates the artistry and innovation, and was subsequently — and will forever be — sampled by artists, producers, and DJs looking for the perfect beat.
By the mid-2000s, a change was coming on the electronic wind. All the coolest bands were making their beats on synthesizers and drum machines. It was called “indie dance,” and hipsters from sea to shining sea wanted to jam out in neon tanks to the irony-laced beats. Hot Chip were one of the biggest names on the burgeoning scene, and the group’s 2006 sophomore release was a musical milestone. “Boy From School,” “Over and Over,” and “Colours” captured the energy of an emerging generation, and Astralwerks was yet again on the pulse.
Alongside indie-dance came a new breed of electronic producers who mixed catchy hooks with buzzsaw groove. Funky, eclectic, and as influenced by electro and techno as punk and hip-hop, the spattering of new artists would one day be gathered under the umbrella term “bloghouse,” a nod to where fans discovered and downloaded the music files. Digitalism’s 2007 debut is a bloghouse staple that stomped, funked, soared, and grimed with the best. “Idealistic” and “Pogo” were total dance floor favorites.
The gritty disco of the late aughts caught on with college kids across the United States, and soon followed a new breed of beat-freaking pop stars, including Lady Gaga and Kesha. Everyone was chasing laser synths and neon lights. Suddenly, DJs and producers were the new rock stars. “EDM” was all the hype, and three superstars from Sweden came together to become the hottest thing on the market. Swedish House Mafia’s high-octane, VIP sound was hard yet expensive, and Astralwerks clinched the deal for a U.S. release of the trio’s debut album.
At the very peak of EDM’s pop crossover explosion stood French-house-DJ-turned-hit-maker David Guetta. It’s a bit cheesy and over the top, but the 13-track album brought Guetta collaborations with the biggest names in music. Nicki Minaj, Snoop Dogg, Usher, Lil Wayne, will.i.am., Sia, and Timbaland all make appearances on this four-on-the-floor bang fest. It turned Guetta into a star worthy of parody on Saturday Night Live. While the EDM trend may not have aged as well as big beat or indie dance, that Astralwerks was on the release for such a hit album is a testament to the label’s continued trend domination.
In 2012, Astralwerks was bought by Universal Music Group and restructured as an imprint of Capitol Music Group. The label took new signings, including then-teenage Porter Robinson. The world outside began nursing its collective EDM hangover, and in 2014, Robinson came through with a pastel-colored antidote. The North Carolina kid had been one of those big-name DJs, but the shallow club culture left a bitter taste in his mouth. He took a risk and dedicated a concept album to the video game, fantasy, and anime narratives that shaped his youth. It was delicate and dynamic, blistering but sweet, and it spawned a new generation of producers and performers who put live production above waving one’s hands in the air. The risk paid off for Robinson, and Astralwerks once again had a forward-thinking hit.
While Robinson crafted Worlds, Astralwerks and its new parent company signed a budding alt-pop singer named Halsey. The smoky-voiced songstress had a hit right out the gate with her debut LP, Badlands, in 2015, but it was her follow-up, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, that reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200, which was a big first for Astralwerks. The album is heavy with electronic production, though it’s a far cry from the ambient works of the label’s humble beginnings.
Electronic music never ceased its cross-genre pollination and experimentation. Australian producer and DJ Alison Wonderland gained fame through energetic sets and trap-laced bangers. Her sophomore album pitted personal lyrics and daring honesty against heavy beats and emotional orchestrations, and it pushed her to international stardom. That same year, Astralwerks moved its offices from New York to Los Angeles and signed a spattering of new artists and releases, including a U.S. release of Awake, doubling down on its commitment to the next generation of electronic talent.