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Not Fade Away 1996: Setting Sun, by The Chemical Brothers

Was it always called Big Beat?

I have a distinct memory of an article in the Face Magazine that attempted to chart the dizzying cartography of dance music in the mid-nineties via a dizzying range of labels (I thought Lionrock was one of them but in retrospect that might have been just the name of a band).

Dizzying to me, at any rate. By 1996 I was in my thirties, my clubbing days were a distant memory and I spent most of that summer changing nappies and singing the chorus of Babybird's You're Gorgeous to my new baby daughter (I didn't bother with the verses. They didn't feel appropriate). Still, when Setting Sun came on the radio I would dance around the playpen.

Big Beat is another example of pop's capacity for reverse engineering. For years rock bands had been bolting on dance beats to their sound but when Oasis emerged in the early nineties and Primal Scream opted to become a karaoke version of the Rolling Stones it began to retreat from adventure and ended up as some kind of tribute version to its sixties self. The result was hugely popular but often hugely dull.

That left the field open for DJs to add rock dynamics to breakbeats, compressing it all into a sound pattern that built and fell, built and fell while filling every available space.

"There was a small flow of new records with uptempo hip-hop beats aligned to house and techno tendencies with a rocky aggression," " Damian Harris, the man behind Skint Records wrote in a Guardian blog in 2008. "As more of these tracks appeared, a light switched on in the heads of a new group of producers and DJs, who - armed with samplers and a new DIY ethic - plundered their record collections and started making music. This is always the creative golden period for any scene, when you've identified a new sound that you want to play in a club but there aren't enough records that have it so you start making them yourself."

Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands met while studying medieval literature at Manchester university at the start of the nineties, formed the Dust Brothers (named after an American production duo), started DJing and remixing, renamed themselves the Chemical Brothers after their American namesakes threatened to sue, and released their first album in 1994. The dense, booming collage of sound they emerged with offered a blueprint for Fatboy Slim and others to follow.

"The nature of sampling is that you take what you can from everywhere you can," Simons said a year or two later. "We don't see the whole of music as one long linear progression through time, but pockets of innovation and greatness that we can go back and access... The way we make records is in section, the way you make clothes, so we're working to stitch it all together to make a whole rather than just sewing all the ends together in a long line."

You can hear that process at work on Setting Sun, which has vocals from Oasis main man Noel Gallagher (the most interesting thing he's ever done?). The result sounds like the Beatles' track Tomorrow Never Knows after a particularly messy night out. "The cartwheeling rumble of the Fabs' epoch-maker has been accelerated into a heady, headlong roar," Cliff Jones wrote in Mojo in 1997. "It feels like being blasted down a time tunnel."

Simons and Rowlands once said they wanted people listening to their records to be "overwhelmed by sound" and that's what Setting Sun does brilliantly. Gallagher's scratchy Lennonesque vocals burrow into a booming, explosive, acid-soaked, rave-sirened soundscape that still sounds epic even now.

In 1996 we were only two years on from John Major's government's Criminal Justice and Public Order Act designed in part to curb rave culture. Dance music - and the culture that surrounded it - was still seen as dangerous. But the Chemical Brothers were not giving us the sound of revolution. They were giving us sound, full stop. Big, fat wedges of noise that blasted and battered and thrilled. That has its own inbuilt radicalism of course.

"Their secret isn't technowizardry, formal daring, or Lord help us eclecticism," American critic Robert Christgau wrote of the duo. "As with so many pop wunderkinds, it's spirit - generous, jubilant, unfazed by industrial doom, in love with energy and sound ... Of course it matters that they're not retro. But it matters even more that their futurism is neither exclusionary nor puritanical."

Setting Sun saw them go back to the future, taking the sonic template of Tomorrow Never Knows and trying to create something as dense and new. In the end it might fall a little short, but not so far. Not so far at all.

Other Contenders

Hyper-Ballad, Bjork

Return of the Mack, Mark Morrison

California Love, 2Pac Featuring Dr Dre

Firestarter, Prodigy

The Box, Orbital

E-bow The Letter, R.E.M.

Fast Love, George Michael

You're Gorgeous, Baby Bird

Walking Wounded, Everything But the Girl

Whenever, Wherever, Whatever, Maxwell

Your Woman, White Town

Ooh Aah, Just A Little Bit, Gina G

Professional Widow, Tori Amos

Setting Son, Chemical Brothers

Deliver Me, The Beloved

A Design For Life, Manic Street Preachers (for the first line mostly)

NME Single of the Year: Born Slippy, Underworld (re-release)

John Peel's Festive 50 Winner: Come Out 2 Nite EP, Kenickie

And the best-selling single of 1996: Killing Me Softly, Fugees

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