The Future Is Now

Includes tracks by Laurie Anderson, Thomas Dolby and DJ Spooky.

It's difficult to include Laurie Anderson's "O Superman" on a compilation. Teetering precariously between high-art minimalism and pop-music novelty, its every nuance is so antiseptic, so meticulously timed that it defamiliarizes the environment around you into something equally antiseptic and meticulous. On a compilation, it would threaten to suck every surrounding song into its post-industrial black hole.

One way to circumvent this problem would be to place it as the last song, which Rhino did on Volume 7 of their Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Hits of the 80's series. On Music Futurists, a collection of "artists who have been on the cutting edge of technology in music," however, they set it firmly in the middle, leaving compiler/ Wired editor Colin Berry with the formidable task of sustaining the sense of flow that makes for a great compilation. Rather than choosing a track specifically to mitigate the energy drain that "O Superman" engenders, though, Berry decides to exacerbate it instead with -- What's this? -- "She Blinded Me With Science."

Imagine anticipating such a trifle in the last few moments of "O Superman." Why, it's damn near blasphemous. But I tell ya, once the Dolby kicks in, the twisted deconstructionist in me takes instant delight in the "transgression." Furthermore, the switch-over forces a very real physiological reaction. It actually feels like someone waking you up from a deep sleep. That sounds annoying, I know, but there's actually something satisfying about it, especially when so many CDs on the increasingly overloaded Information Age market provoke no reaction at all. As theorist Lawrence Grossberg once wrote, "I'd rather feel bad than not feel anything at all." And therein lies the appeal of Music Futurists.

If there's one concept that can be said to unite Music Futurists as disparate as Todd Rundgren, Godley & Creme, Beck and DJ Spooky, it's that the clash between their representative tracks come off as near bipolar extremities when placed next to one another, repeatedly forcing you to regain your bearings. Steve Reich soothes you with a lovely, minimalist "Pulse" but the psychedelic funk of Can's "Spoon" jolts you out of it. Brian Eno's excruciatingly dull "2/1" puts your ass to sleep but Devo's "Beautiful World" is that band practice across the street that always disturbs your nap.

And it's not just between songs that this phenomenon occurs; it happens within songs as well. In order to exploit the full range of hi-fidelity stereo sound, Esquivel's take on "Grenada" interrupts a light samba rhythm with garish horn blares and then speeds up halfway through to show off his "zu-zu- zus" and other trademark effects. Sun Ra establishes a sure-footed theme on "Plutonian Nights" but an aimless contrabass solo gives the cut a more tentative feel. And whether pounding mistuned strings or swimming in a feedback sprawl, Sonic Youth (represented here with "Schizophrenia") made their abrasions lull and their lulls abrade.

If these incongruities have anything to do with the future, then Berry doesn't let on to it in his liner notes, which taught me nothing except that that line in "She Blinded Me With Science" goes "Good heavens, Miss Sakamoto, you're beautiful!" (I always thought it was "Miss South America.") Rhino's Neil Werde actually says more about what the hell Music Futurists could be about in one line from his short introduction: "At the time each of these tracks was released, we were reminded that we were already living in the future." I don't know much about the reality of Eisenhower-era hi-ball shakers to determine if that's how Esquivel was received at the time but it's certainly a defining characteristic of the '90s. The proof lies in how the increasingly rapid collapse of the future into the present is met with more anxiety, how Godley & Creme's 1985 omen of Kurt Cobain's emotional axis, "Cry," gives way to Ben Neill inhabiting Neil Young's "After The Gold Rush" as if it were a ghost town.

Music Futurists achieves its first stated goal of establishing a "historical artifact." But it falls short of its second stated goal of hoping the CD will "stand on its own, like a great mix tape." Too much here just sucks; Eno and Devo could have been better represented, DJ Spooky could have been left off, etc. But it does benefit from one delicious compiling coup -- there's not one track from the '60s here. Just contemplate the chutzpah of anthologizing "innovators who forged inroads for directions later taken in music" and ignoring the '60s. As someone who still feels stifled by counterculture nostalgia, that sounds like the future to me.