Stereolab: The Essential Guide
Explore the sprawling catalog of one of the grooviest, most mesmerizing experimental pop acts of the past 20 years.
The paradox of Stereolab is that while they spent their entire career collecting and reinterpreting sounds from obscure records, there really isn't another band that sounds quite like them. Every influence — whether it was French pop, Krautrock, bossa nova, punk rock, avant-garde minimalism, psychedelia, or '60s lounge music — was filtered through the distinct musical style of the band's two core members, French singer Laetitia Sadier and English multi-instrumentalist Tim Gane. Their sound is cerebral but groovy; formalist yet ultra-catchy. A lot of bands can be labeled "art-pop," but few could ever hope to strike that balance as perfectly as Stereolab.
Stereolab were very prolific, releasing 10 studio albums, several compilations, and dozens of singles and EPs between 1992 and 2010. This post is a guide to their major works.
The band's first studio album is their most raw, with the Stereolab's approach to repetitive grooves filtered through lo-fi guitar noise. "Stomach Worm," the best track, extends a simple vamp to a glorious, intensely joyful seven-minute romp.
The Groop Played Space Age Batchelor Pad Music (1993)
"Avant Garde M.O.R."
This mini-album was the band's first experiment with integrating gently lulling sounds from lounge and the softer side of French pop. This record is intriguing mainly because unlike their later work covering this ground, the music here is very focused on soothing, repetitive guitar chords.
Transient Random Noise-Bursts with Announcements (1993)
Transient Random is Stereolab's first masterpiece, and the defining work of their early, more guitar-centric period. This is Stereolab at their most urgent, with analog synthesizers and guitars blaring into a near-constant buzz, and simple mantras sung over two-chord drones that come close to sounding like genuine rock anthems. This idea is especially powerful on "Crest," where the repetition of the phrase "If there's been a way to build it / There will be a way to destroy it / Things are not all that out of control" is like a revolutionary concept that becomes more powerful and more calming with each iteration.
Mars Audiac Quintet (1994)
"International Colouring Contest"
Mars Audiac Quartet is the band's first step toward the more refined style that became their dominant characteristic. As such, this is arguably the most tonally varied record of their career, with slick lounge-pop tunes like "Des Etoile Electroniques" and "International Colouring Contest" sharing space with space-rock drones like "Transona Five" and the fairly rocking singles "Ping Pong" and "Wow and Flutter." It's also one of their most politically charged albums, as even fairly innocuous tunes like "Ping Pong" feature lyrics that sound like notes scribbled in the margins of a leftist poli-sci major's textbooks.
Refried Ectoplasm (1995)
"Lo Boob Oscillator"
Refried Ectoplasm isn't technically an album — it's actually the second in the band's Switched On series of singles compilations — but it's one of the best-loved records in the band's discography, and home to utterly essential tracks like the lovely "Lo Boob Oscillator" (which is famous for appearing on the soundtrack of High Fidelity), and the fiery "French Disko," one of their finest concert staples. The rest of the set is quite good too, with material that bridges the tonal gap between the fairly grim Transient Random and the willfully kitschy Mars Audiac Quintet.
Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996)
Emperor Tomato Ketchup is Stereolab's undeniable masterwork, and one of the greatest albums of the 1990s. If you are only going to ever buy one Stereolab record, this is the one, as its 13 tracks cover all of the band's strengths, from the elaborate futuristic funk of "Metronomic Underground" to the breezy, orchestral French pop of "Cybele's Reverie" to the glorious one-chord bop of its gleeful title track. Stereolab records can often be a bit too cerebral, but this is the album where their formal approach and high-minded ideas are consistently balanced out by a joyful warmth.
"Emperor Tomato Ketchup"
"The Noise of Carpet"
"The Noise of Carpet," the album's centerpiece, is the last — but also the best — of the band's quasi-punk tunes. It goes very meta, with Sadier using the punkish track to criticize the smug, narrow thinking of many punks. But as brutal as it sounds when she sings lines like "I hate to see your broken face / A lazy life of fatal waste / Of fashionable cynicism / The poison they want you to drink / Oh no, man that's too easy," it's clear that she is not dismissing the person she's addressing so much as sternly hoping for them to do better and live up to their potential.
Dots and Loops (1997)
Dots and Loops is where Stereolab leap wholeheartedly into very sterile and emotionally neutral musical territory. The band strip out nearly all traces of rock, replacing it mainly with chilly electronic beats, lite jazz keyboards, and easy-listening orchestration. This is a rather polarizing record, but a key moment in the band's creative arc. Some of Dots and Loops can blur together into a numbing haze, but the opening tracks "Brakhage" and "Miss Modular" stand as two of the group's finest pop compositions.
Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night (1999)
"Come and Play in the Milky Night"
Cobra and Phases covers some of the same ground as Dots and Loops, but it's a far warmer and more engaging record, thanks mainly to a more "live" feeling to the percussion and the integration of elements from Latin pop on several of the tracks. This is also a fairly eclectic record, with intriguing digressions like the gorgeous moonlit romp "Come and Play in the Milky Night" and the spacey epic "Blue Milk."
Sound-Dust is Stereolab's most lush and ornate record. The songs are so full of melodic and rhythmic ideas that several of them split off on tangents, like the groovy multi-part epic "Captain Easychord," or "Double Rocker," which starts off as a dreamy ballad before concluding as a lightly funky number with horns. Longtime guitarist and backing vocalist Mary Hansen died a year after this album was released, so this record marks the end of an era for the band, and the last Stereolab record to prominently feature layered vocal harmonies.
Margerine Eclipse (2004)
Margerine Eclipse, the band's first full-length album following the death of Hansen, is split between songs that convey shell-shocked grief over her loss and joyous celebration in memory of her life. As such, it's a pretty confusing record, but the bright spots make up for the stretches that seem a little too vague or remote.
Fab Four Suture (2006)
While Margerine Eclipse was a transitional record, the singles collected on Fab Four Suture mark a new phase of the Stereolab discography, with Gane and Sadier placing a new emphasis on rhythm. The best songs, like "Interlock" and "Kyberneticka Babicka, Pt. 1," integrate elements of Motown and '70s funk into the familiar Stereolab style.
Chemical Chords (2008)
Chemical Chords, the band's final proper album, connects the quasi-Motown rhythmic elements of the Fab Four Suture material with the swooshing harmonies and dense keyboards of the Emperor Tomato Ketchup phase. It's not their best work overall, but the highlights, like the cheerful "Neon Beanbag" and the jaw-droppingly gorgeous single "Three Women," rank among the band's all-time best material.
Not Music (2010)
"Two Finger Symphony"
Not Music was recorded concurrently with Chemical Chords, and mostly expands on musical ideas from that record. It's not essential, but some of the tracks, like the stunning "Two Finger Symphony," are among the best of the group's heavily rhythmic material.