When we think of the truly transformative albums in pop history—those rare records that clearly mark a line between “before” and “after”—they tend to herald a seismic moment in musical innovation (Sgt. Pepper’s), generational upheaval (Nevermind), or social unrest (To Pimp a Butterfly). But in its own subtle, sophisticated way, Air’s 1998 Moon Safari belongs to this class of game-changing albums. Appearing at the tail end of the ‘90s alterna-boom, it signalled a 180-degree shift away from indie-rock’s lo-fi, thrift-store aesthetic into the sort of plush, expansive sound that demanded attentive listening in leather easy chairs and through expensive stereos. It was an album that made once-verboten guilty pleasures——’70s prog-rock, lush vocoderized disco, easy-listening exotica——innocent again, while firmly entrenching the seductive symphonic funk of Serge Gainbourg in the indie lexicon alongside rickety Velvet Underground rhythms and Sonic Youthian discord. And for better or worse, Moon Safari codified the concept of the bistro album, supplying the finest audio wallpaper to exposed-brick, Edison-bulbed eateries around the world. When you consider indie-rock’s transformation from scrappy, DIY artform to commerical sync-license gold in the 21st century, you can’t discount Moon Safari’s aspirational influence and affluence.
This playlist hones in on its immediate moment of impact. In the wake of Moon Safari, guitar-oriented acts like Radiohead and The Flaming Lips refashioned themselves as studio scientists to pursue sounds both more elegant and experimental. Daft Punk’s heavy-duty house began exhibiting a more pronounced ‘70s soft-rock flavor. And you couldn’t swing a rolled-up shag carpet without hitting an upstart downtempo duo like Röyksopp, Arling & Cameron, Lemon Jelly and Thievery Corporation. And in Zero 7, you had the more pop-oriented successor that took Air’s retro-futurist soundscapes into the mainstream. With Moon Safari turning 20 this month, let’s bask in its lunar eclipse.