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London has always had a strong reputation for pioneering new musical concepts, forms and ideas, so it’s unsurprising that many of the city’s exports have enjoyed global success. Despite being stylistically intricate, dubstep has arguably had a greater international impact than any other garage offshoot.
The late 2000s saw the genre establish itself critically and commercially for the first time. Whether you enjoy moody bedroom minimalism or booming sub-bass that’ll shake your bedroom, you’ll be sure to enjoy at least one of the following five essential acts.
Essential Album: ‘Untrue’ (2007)
Holding you, couldn’t be alone // Loving you, couldn’t be alone // Kissing you, tell me how can you, tell me I belong, tell me I belong…
Burial remains an enigma: his real name is dubious, there are few photos of him and he doesn’t play live shows. But then, when you consider the sense of isolation that has long characterised his music, maybe anonymity makes sense.
In the late 2000s, Burial did for dubstep what Aphex Twin did for techno by adapting the genre to a non-club environment. Cutting up R&B samples and sprinkling them amidst tribal 2-step rhythms, Burial managed to create melancholic soundscapes that sounded like absolutely nothing else.
This introspective, haunting sound was most prominent on Burial’s second album ‘Untrue’, an album which spawned dozens of ‘chillstep’ imitators in the years that followed.
Essential Album: ‘Choke on Coke EP’ (2009)
We’re gonna throw a bunch of spiders, throw some vodka and torch your ass on fire // Now Goblin, you’re 21 and you’re a virgin still…
At some point between Skream and Skrillex, dubstep producers starting making greater use of mid-range sounds and house-inspired drops. Israeli producer Tomba arguably represented this style at its absolute ugliest and most excessive.
That’s part of the charm, though. Tomba was the anti-Burial; it’s as if he worked out how to amplify low frequencies five minutes before writing a track, such was the lack of subtlety to his brutal ‘compositions’.
You could at least call them compositions, though. Unlike many of his contemporaries, including frequent collaborator Borgore, Tomba possessed a musicality to match his penchant for drama. The violin-led monster ‘Symphony 666’, which sounds like it could have been written by a drugged-up Beethoven, is undeniable evidence of that.
Essential Album: ‘London Zoo’ (2008)
Phenomenomenon nine, Tec wid da nine // Tec nine ago tek nine, Boy dem can’t dis mi it’s fine…
It’s easy to forget that dubstep owes its existence to dancehall reggae, a style that the Jamaican community brought over to London many decades ago.
The Bug’s unholy alliance of muddy production and dubstep riddims, compounded by aggressive vocal contributions from various grime emcees, sounded revolutionary back in 2008.
As evidenced by chilling cuts like ‘Skeng’ – a delightful track where Killaman and Flowdan articulate various ways in which they intend to massacre their victims – The Bug managed to match the sheer brutality of his “brostep” peers without using any clichéd club-style drops.
Essential Album: ‘Memories of the Future’ (2006)
You see, murder can happen ‘pon the steps of colonial // Residence without even a moment’s hesitance…
The granddaddy of modern dubstep, Kode9 was the initial founder of the highly respected label Hyperdub. Though he’s better known for providing a platform for the likes of Burial, Glasgow-born DJ embarked on his own dub poetry hybrid with The Spaceape for ‘Memories of the Future’ in 2006.
The moody minimalism won’t be for everybody; The Spaceape’s meandering imagery is enough to send you to sleep in the wrong setting. Kode9’s work sounds much better on huge speakers that allow his crawling basslines to really resonate.
Like all the best dubstep, Kode9’s music is a multi-sensory experience. The trippy atmosphere and jagged textures are best felt in a club environment.
Essential Album: ‘Three EPs’ (2009)
I’m drawing lines on paper, they start to look like smoke // I seem them turn to vapour, they come right off the page and seep into my mind…
Integrating exotic techno vibes into the mix, Shackleton created vital and sonically adventurous dubstep in the late 2000s. Along with artists like Phaeleh and Clubroot, he proved to be one of the few producers who could make minimal dubstep as expressive as any form of non-electronic music.
Case in point: ‘Moon Over Joseph’s Burial’ is eight minutes of little more than a swirling bassline and clattering noises, yet its sense of exploration makes it feel absolutely hypnotic.
If you like your dubstep that causes your face to contort like a screwed up bath sponge, don’t apply here, but Shackleton is essential for listeners that want to hear the genre at its most experimental.
As sketches by Key & Peele and Jack Douglass have humorously demonstrated, dubstep isn’t for the fainthearted. The genre has become oversaturated with producers whose main goal seems to be to decimate listeners’ hearing capabilities via disgusting bass drops.
Artists like the five above remind us that the roots of the genre were subtler than that, albeit still sonically challenging. So, dub-heads, which other essentials acts have been missed out?
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