Here it is, the Optimistic Underground list of the best dub techno albums ever made. Recently I realized there were no definitive lists or guides for ushering new fans into the genre I love most. The few I found were anemic, narrow, and boring; nobody was doing dub techno justice. So here I am, trying to do just that.
The magic of this genre is that its best and brightest examples are not only impressive musical monuments; they’re easy to love and loop and listen forever. This isn’t an academic compilation based on importance or history; it comes from a deep affection for a living, breathing sound.
Dub techno was born with such a defined aesthetic that many early examples sounded like they were from the same artists. Some of them actually were. In fact, you’ll see a few artists represented under different names on this very list. It’s not for a lack of options out there; techno artists tend to switch up identities as soon as they find a new direction in sound. So on a sensory level, for all intents and purposes, they really are distinct musicians. Basic Channel is not 3MB is not Maurizio is not Rhythm & Sound is not Moritz Von Oswald Trio is not Borderland… you get the picture.
You may notice that this list holds many compilations standing in as albums. In a genre so deeply associated with the 12″ single format, many early dub techno artists became known to the wider world via compilation CDs. This is where the hermetic genre feel becomes an advantage: these compilations often evoke the feel and structure of planned album releases. They’re as cohesive as anything recorded in the album format and undeniable highlights for the genre.
Some of the biggest fans of dub techno are the ones who want to keep it pure, holding a very narrow range of sound as the platonic ideal, accepting little variation and dismissing anything that comes later. They hold up the few original masterpieces as paragons of the sound and dismiss anyone who came along in the following decades. These folks come at music with a prescriptivist attitude, battling for how they think music should be, rather than appreciating how it is. I believe they’re wrong.
When it comes to music, just like grammar, I’m always a descriptivist. I love when genres splinter into dozens of permutations as they migrate and adapt to their new environments. When it comes to dub techno, I hear masterpieces in every era, from the obvious touchstones of the 1990s on up through last year. This sound comes in more than one shape, a fact made crystal clear as we follow its timeline below. This list is arranged in chronological order so you can follow along from when the genre broke ground through the myriad branches that grew as it matured. Accordingly, the music gets weirder and more varied as time goes on.
On with the list. These are the best dub techno albums ever made:
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Basic Channel – Quadrant Dub
There can be no denial: Quadrant Dub is simply one of the most transcendent pieces of music ever recorded. From my point of view, it may be the most important dub techno recording of all, the early pinnacle of the genre and a high water mark for artists to reach toward for decades. Created in 1994 by Basic Channel, the German due composed of Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, this 12″ has done more than stand the test of time; it remains charging onward, carving its own timeline outside of everyday reality. With these two songs, Basic Channel perfected their sound, raising an art form into the realm of religious experience. It is pure rapture spread over thirty seven minutes. The entire experience passes in an instant if you surrender, pure bliss suspended far above tactile reality. If you want it, this can become a kind of on-tap meditation, an elemental recording used to send your mind where it needs to go at the push of a button.
Without Basic Channel, and without this record in particular, dub techno would look very different today, if it existed at all. But don’t let that importance intimidate you; it’s as open and inviting as anything in this genre, a perfect introduction for newcomers and a stratospheric peak for diehard fans to return to always.
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Model 500 – Starlight
1995 / 2007
You may have noticed that two years are listed for this single’s release – that’s because the original track, paired with its stunning Moritz Von Oswald remix, dropped right in the opening years of dub techno, but the set was revived, extracted, mutated, and fleshed out over a decade later by Deepchord’s Rod Modell and a host of other genre superstars. The resulting eighty minute release sees the timeless Detroit techno original, by Juan Atkins’ most famous project, extrapolated into an album’s worth of undulating, kaleidoscopic dub techno fireworks. The clean synth lines and understated thump of the original track opens the set, before flowing uninterrupted into its first permutation, a twelve minute monster by Modell himself. The baton gets passed to luminaries like Echospace, Convextion, and Mike Huckaby in a seamless progression mirroring a fully mixed DJ set. This direct connectivity helps the “album” feel like one continuous, multi-headed dub techno behemoth, flowing through every genre permutation possible, highlighting the very essence of what makes it work. Dub techno isn’t merely a sound; it’s an ethos, a philosophy, and a way of bending known music into its own warped world. So a set that mutates one classic song into ten equally ecstatic, distinctly flavored tracks is an essential piece of the genre puzzle. This strange masterpiece could work as a Rosetta stone for the uninitiated, cracking the code of dub techno in a way most single albums from single artists could never achieve.
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Porter Ricks – Biokinetics
Some dub techno artists lean toward the minimalist, ascetic side of the genre’s roots, often to fascinating results. The duo of Porter Ricks, Thomas Köner and Andy Mellwig, took this ideal to its monk-like extreme on the first album length masterpiece of the genre. This album is an absolute dream for audiophiles, thanks to the recording pedigree of its creators. Mellwig came to the project as the mastering and cutting engineer at the legendary Dubplates & Mastering, as well as having collaborated with Kevin Shields, Pete Kember, and Kevin Martin on Experimental Audio Research. Köner was already well known for his visually processed sound design on films and art installations. On Biokinetics, the pair broke all recognizable genre signifiers down to the molecular level, rebuilding dub techno from the ground up with unrivaled focus and scope.
On paper, the music here might be the most minimalist of anything on this list – in less than a minute, every element of these lengthy tracks have been exposed to the listener, but the effect of actually spending six, eight, twelve minutes inside the impeccable sound worlds is beyond description. Each track here is an aquatic wonderland to bask in and explore. The repetition builds intensity as various elements fade up and down in the mix, seemingly growing and changing and racing across the audio spectrum while remaining still to the distant observer. Biokinetics is as much a magnum opus of sound design as it is a landmark of dub techno music, and it hasn’t aged a day in its twenty two years of existence so far.
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Burger/Ink – Las Vegas
Even if this album contained only the track “Twelve Miles High” I’d still put it on a list of the best dub techno albums ever made. It is that huge, that important, and that brilliant of a track. Few single pieces of music convey the majestic possibilities of the genre than this nearly twelve minute locomotive banger, from Jörg Burger and Wolfgang Voigt. Floating at the center of a sprawling, structurally varied techno juggernaut, this track elevates the entire experience into an essential genre touchstone. The variety of moods filling out the rest of the album help its personality really stand out, especially in a genre known for its homogeneous sound. Tracks range from slow motion funk workouts to carefully sculpted IDM grooves that wouldn’t feel out of place on an Autechre album. In this way, Las Vegas philosophically bridges the gap between dub techno’s core identity and the then-burgeoning Warp scene, where experimental artists were turning techno into something completely new. If I were to recommend one first-generation dub techno album to someone more familiar with Aphex Twin or Boards of Canada, this would undoubtedly be it.
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Maurizio – M-Series
M-Series is here because it must be. Along with the astonishing Basic Channel 12″ dubs, there are no tracks more fundamental to the dub techno genre than Moritz Von Oswald’s run of singular bangers under his Maurizio guise. To be fair, this compilation is not something I often return to for repeat listens. It’s right on the knife edge between Important and Loveable, leaning toward the former while, every time I find myself actually listening in full, reaching so hard for the latter. When I think about Maurizio in the abstract, I often consider the historical impact more than the enjoyment of the sounds. But when I actually press play, I’m sent reeling back into my skull, grappling with the full force of what had been unleashed on these tracks over two decades ago. There’s a reason these tracks are all so important: they’re astonishing. At first blush, they might feel like the most simplistic, elemental pieces on this entire list. They feel stripped down even compared to other Chain Reaction releases. But press play, let them wash over you, and see what happens next.
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Vainqueur – Elevations
This collection, more than any early Chain Reaction release, predicted the weird, vaporous, sometimes noisy mutation of dub techno that only truly flowered in the past few years. The songs gathered here, from a number of 12″ vinyl-only releases across the mid-nineties, seem to coat the listener like a fine mist, slowly enveloping the entire aural spectrum in delicate sheets of static, echoed vocal slices, and icy synths. The bass throbs like clockwork far beneath, giving momentum and structure to the freewheeling psychedelia twirling above. In many ways, it exemplifies one of the best aspects of the genre, its capacity for accessible exploration – the best artists find ways to use the rigid beat structure as a massive canvas upon which to color their most far-out impressionistic dreams. This is techno’s biggest spiritual connection to jazz: the combination of timeless rhythm and mindfuck soloing, a balance that leads to transcendence.
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Monolake – Hongkong
The first Monolake “album” is actually a roundup of 12″ vinyl highlights from the then-duo’s spectacular early Chain Reaction label run – and like the other artist compilations featured on this list, it functions seamlessly as an album experience. In fact, it might be the first true dub techno opus. There’s a sense of narrative, of place and time, a grand arc to this set that feels intentional, plotted, despite the staggered original releases of its individual tracks. In 1996, Gerhard Behles and Robert Henke attended the International Computer Music Conference in Hong Kong, where they captured field recordings of the city, as well as similar ones in Guangzhou. Inspired by their experience, they pieced together the music here with field recordings from the journey, cementing its sensory structure as a musical biography of a very particular point in history. Yet somehow this very specificity helps Hongkong achieve its overwhelming timelessness. These songs float into focus on the backs of people, traffic, trains, life captured over twenty years ago, bulging with rhythm and reverb, eventually receding back into the rainy city nights from where they thumped. Each piece is an island unto itself, but the set makes for a ringed archipelago that begs for repeat round trips.
The fact that these two men developed the famed Ableton music software afterward tells you all you need to know about the astounding fidelity on display. Behles continues to run Ableton and Henke has continued solo as Monolake through a vast run of albums over the last two decades, both men continuing to influence the genre and the wider music industry to this day. Look further down this list to see the field recording aesthetic taken to the next level with the album Liumin, by Deepchord Presents Echospace.
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Micronism – Inside a Quiet Mind
Inside a Quiet Mind is one of the more stylistically varied albums on this list, often reaching well beyond the accepted dimensions of dub techno. Yet it remains solidly in place because its spirit and tone evoke the meditative state this genre is known for, perhaps even better than some of the big canonized artists. Still, whatever the genre, it’s a near miracle we’re even talking about the album today. This late 90s release was almost lost to the black hole of cultural memory until a surprise vinyl reissue last year; with its arrival, my peers in the music geek world started talking. I can’t remember who mentioned it to me, but I thank them profusely.
This is a true hidden gem from an artist with a unique story. The New Zealand electronic artist, real name Denver McCarthy, told Stuff, “I had crates and crates of DJ records, yet I kept coming back to this one LP of people chanting the Hare Krishna mantra. It was suddenly the only record I wanted to listen to, so I gave all the rest of my records away and started selling my musical equipment. There was no desire to make music anymore. As my ego fell away, I lost the taste for it.” And as he began his journey through the Krishna belief system, he made a new record under a new name to soundtrack this spiritual transition. The sound begins in deep dub techno territory, but swiftly cuts through the most heady aspects of broader techno’s journey from Detroit to Berlin and back. It may not always sound dubby, but it always feels like it.