Even for those of us who generally dismiss the flower-childish notion that art is too divine to be categorized recognize what a tough break the often dissimilar artists lumped together as IDM have gotten. As with so many genres, from film noir to doo-wop, "intelligent dance music" was named by its fans — in this case, the tag was codified by a mid-'90s internet listserv that extolled home-listening electronic, the kind of music that was not necessarily aimed at the dance floor. A lack of "cheesiness" got the thumbs-up, too. But just as R&B has come to mean "contemporary black pop" rather than its original "rhythm and blues," IDM has moved beyond its impetus and has become a useful catchall for a panoply of electronic composition: sample-slinging, programmed noodling, the twisting of rhythmic fillips like aluminum foil round a potato.
The major problem with selecting 12 albums to cover the terrain is that no two definitions of IDM are alike. So think of the Various Artists compilations here as guideposts to the sensibility I'm trying to capture. Artificial Intelligence is the early '90s Warp collection that helped name the entire style; Bytes is a slightly more advanced version of same; Clicks + Cuts mates those sensibilities with glitch techno and laptop production; Tigerbeat6 Inc. is Clicks re-imagined (when not torpedoed altogether) by giddy pranksters; and 200 is a state-of-the-state showcase by Planet Mu, the label founded by Mike Paradinas, a.k.a. IDM stalwart Mu-Ziq.
The latter may be the bellwether for this list as well. Maybe it won't be anybody's next big thing, but it's not going anywhere, either — appropriate for a style once dubbed "armchair techno."