10 Standout Tracks That Engage With Climate Change

How are electronic music artists responding to mankind’s destruction of the Earth?

“I walked over to the [hotel room] balcony and there was the picture-book scenery, palm trees swaying in the breeze and all. When I looked down… there below my view was this ugly, concrete car park on the hotel grounds.” 

This was Joni Mitchell telling the NME about a trip to Hawaii in 1969 that inspired “Big Yellow Taxi,” perhaps the most famous and enduring song about ecological destruction. 

49 years after Mitchell’s vacation, here was the Finnish “eco-grime” artist Forces talking about the album Climate Denial Machine:

“The undisputed reality is that we need to recognize the influence of the people and institutions hijacking the scientific discourse of climate change for their own benefits. The album is dedicated to raising that awareness.”

Each track on this mad and sometimes beautiful record is named after a conservative think-tank that disputes the consensus on climate science—“Frontiers Of Freedom,” “Earth Day Alternatives,” “Institute For Humane Studies” are among the vaguely sinister names.  

Two very different artists. Two very different sounds. Two very different times. The basic idea, however, is the same. There’s a massive, existential problem we must face, and here’s some music about it.

Of course, Forces belongs to a generation that increasingly understands the reality of climate breakdown. It’s difficult to accurately measure this generation’s engagement with climate change through electronic music. But it certainly feels like it’s increased recently. Albums and tracks with climate change as a theme or concept, for instance, seem more widespread. Six of the ten tracks in this playlist came out in the past two years. 

Some rudimentary data might also back the idea of an increase: Beatport has 31 tracks in its catalogue with “climate change” or variations thereof in the title. OK, so next to nine million-plus tracks in the Beatport catalogue this is a drop in the plastic-filled ocean. But it’s at least interesting to consider that the first mention was Roska’s UK funky cut “Climate Change,” as recently as 12 years ago, and that 16 of the 31 “climate change” tracks were released within the last two years. Is this enough to call it a trend?  

“I think a lot of [artists] are holding back because climate change or climate politics in general hits home in a very deep way,” Jayda G, whose music draws on her background in environmental science, told Dummy last year. “I think people step back and say, ‘OK, what is there that I can actually do, I feel powerless,’ and another way that people react to feeling powerless is just disengaging. That’s not just for electronic artists, I think that goes for a lot of people.”

This is basically what inspired this playlist. How have electronic music artists been able to creatively respond to a problem as mind-bending and overwhelming as the collapse of the natural world as we know it?

“Creatively processing a monumental subject was kind of about bringing it to the dance floor,” Kelly Lee Owens, whose thumping minimal techno track “Melt!” features below, told us. “And being unafraid of putting it in those places that we feel are potentially places to escape—in a positive sense.” 

For the Bristol artist Pessimist—whose 2019 album with Loop Faction, We All Have An Impact, is one of the few good things to come from this situation—the theme was “pretty simple in my eyes: electronic music that represents both the technological / manmade word and the natural world / soundscapes / foley. Using these two contrasting aesthetics we wanted to create a narrative of these worlds colliding and how destructive that can be.” 

In their emails, both artists weren’t under an illusions: ultimately world leaders and global corporations will be the ones who determine the outcome of this crisis. But, importantly, Pessimist added: “We can all at least start talking about it more and putting a larger focus on it.” 

Here are ten tracks from the past 30 years of electronic music that do just that.

Cerrone - The Impact

We absolutely could have opened this list with Cerrone’s 1977 disco smash, “Supernature.” The French artist was addressing ecological damage before the terms “global warming” and “climate change” were even in wide use. But we’ve instead selected 2019’s “The Impact”—a sort of sequel to “Supernature” that, through its video and the sampled voice of the primatologist Jane Goodall, hits especially hard.

“Every single day we make some impact on the planet,” she says. “We haven’t inherited this planet from our parents, we’ve borrowed it from our children.” 

The video is painful to watch. As Cerrone drops one of those iconic arp basslines and disco drums, we see the state of play in grisly detail. Factories spewing pollution. Fossil fuels burning. Sprawling landfills. Forests ablaze. 

Cerrone is a seasoned campaigner, though, who knows that we need both awareness and hope. As the track peaks once more in its emotive string section, we fly over sublime mountain ranges and savannahs, in awe of nature’s magnitude. The simple message of “The Impact” might therefore be: Here’s what we’re doing, and here’s what’s at stake.

Kelly Lee Owens - Melt!

“Engaging with climate change is something that has been ongoing for me for a long time,” Kelly Lee Owens told us. “I think we’re all waking up to the truth and the harsh reality of climate breakdown. It’s been something that I’ve been… I guess accepting slowly, as we all have, because it is overwhelming.” 

On her latest album, Inner Song, three of the 10 tracks look at climate change and/or the natural world, each working a different musical angle. “Re-Wild” is smoky R&B, while “Wake-Up” is an electronic pop song whose strings, Owens felt, were like “the earth and nature crying out.”  

“Melt!,” in turn, is much different, and poses a compelling question: Can a club banger tackle a serious subject like the melting ice caps? Owens lays samples of glacial ice melt and ice skating over, well, icy techno beats. These details, though, are backgrounded by a brain-frying synth line that would have been adored by festival crowds this year. It’s this tension, between the track’s subject and its form, that defines “Melt!” 

“I do feel there’s a place for conversation around climate change and climate breakdown in dance music,” Owens said. “I think moving your body and being connected to yourself is really, really fundamental. Therefore connecting to what’s going on in the world—if you know yourself, you’re centred, if you’re connected, then you can only start to become connected to the truth of what’s happening. That was my angle.”

Coldcut & Hexstatic - Timber

Since taking office in January 2019, Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazlian president, has, against the backdrop of widespread wildfires in the country, overseen huge increases in deforestation and curbed environmental protections. Crucially, he appears to believe that climate change actually isn’t an issue.

This isn’t the future that Coldcut and Hexstatic hoped for when they wrote “Timber” in 1997. 

The track channels a sense of deep sadness and loss, at a time when rates of Amazonian deforestation were at an all-time high. The quickest way of absorbing the poignancy of the message here is to watch “Timber”’s video. Synched to cut-up footage from a Greenpeace film, it’s here we appreciate the scope and ambition of Coldcut & Hexstatic’s sampling and the track’s theme. Axes. Chainsaws. Animal calls. Falling trees. Logging machines. Human voice. A rainforest’s worth of sounds were brought together. 

Smart production and video aside, the track’s potency is absolutely in the emotional switch around halfway. The cold funkiness of machines is gradually subsumed by pads and voice, perhaps representing the gentle cries of animal and human suffering. “Timber” resurfaced earlier this year through a remix by Maceo Plex. He transposed the emotional punch to a dance floor context, meaning a new audience was reached—and perhaps touched—by “Timber.” 

Boreal Massif - Weather In August

You could easily engage with 2019’s We All Have An Impact, the album “Weather In August” comes from, on a straight-up sonic level. Because let’s be clear: it’s a fantastic record. Pessimist and Loop Faction, using the alias Boreal Massif, combine ambient, drum & bass, field recordings and, most notably, trip-hop to produce atmospheres so thick with smoky tension that Massive Attack themselves would be proud. 

But this tension resonates that much more when absorbing the album’s theme: the destruction of the natural world and our ecosystems. As Pessimist told us, the idea was to use contrasting sounds to represent the collision between man and nature. 

So there’s a war raging on We All Have An Impact. And the prevalence of darker moods suggest that humans are “winning.” This is clear on “Weather In August,” the album’s mighty centrepiece. It’s as though the fauna and flora of the track—clicks, static, calls—are being flattened by the massive, all-conquering synthesiser of mankind.  

“I guess a lot of electronic music is always focussed on subcultures, trendy stuff or what’s cool right now,” Pessimist told us. “So making an album about a topic that actually means something to me and Reuben [Loop Faction] was what I wanted to do. To be honest, I think the album is more relevant right now than when it first came out.”

Massive Attack ft Horace Andy - Hymn Of The Big Wheel

“We’re as worried about things like pollution as everyone else,” Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja said to the NME in 1991, “it’s just we don’t want to write about it so obviously. We ain’t got no solutions to the problems, we’re just the same as everyone else living it.” Almost 30 years later, they did wind up finding some solutions to the problems—but we’ll come to that shortly.  

Del Naja was speaking about “Hymn Of The Big Wheel,” the gorgeous closer of Blue Lines, the group’s iconic debut album. The song was imagined as a father telling his son about the sort of ecological future that may await us. “The wheel keeps turning, the sky’s rearranging,” Horace Andy sings. “Look, my son, the weather is changing.”

Like the other ‘90s tracks on this list, “Hymn Of The Big Wheel” evokes quasi-religious or spiritual moods in dealing with our destructive relationship to the Earth. The song’s ultimately bleak message is belied by its devotional qualities, a world apart from the encroaching paranoia of more recent climate change tracks.   

Del Naja himself has been extremely proactive on the issue in recent years. In a short film released a few months back, he explained the work Massive Attack has been doing with the Tyndall Centre For Climate Change Research, who were commissioned to explore strategies to move the live music industry towards carbon neutrality. Were it not for the pandemic, the project would have culminated this year with a concert in Liverpool, a potential blueprint for ultra-low-carbon events.

“As well as the havoc the pandemic reaps across our lives, there’s also the opportunity within that enforced hiatus to reflect and to change,” Del Naja said in the film as “Hymn Of The Big Wheel” thrums in the background.  

Jayda G - Orca’s Reprise

“The public has a hard time grasping some of these concepts because there’s such a disconnect between our day-to-day lives and the natural world,” Jayda Guy told The Guardian last year. “I wanted to bridge the gap, and invoke empathy for the natural world.”

Guy is well-placed to make this observation. She’s an environmental scientist who earned a masters degree in resource and environmental management. Her thesis explored the effects of chemicals on orcas in the Salish Sea, off the west coast of Canada. She was speaking to The Guardian to highlight a series of talks she held in London that aimed to demystify environmental sciences. It was a strong example of an artist positively using their platform while bringing otherwise disparate worlds—science and dance music—into close contact.    

Indeed, Guy successfully blended academia and music on her debut album, 2019’s Significant Changes. “Orca’s Reprise,” our pick from the record, has the sound of an orca right there at the beginning. The track leaves aside the image of the “killer whale,” instead highlighting an animal of serenity and beauty. Guy uses guitar, piano, strings and gentle drums to convey this; on an album that shakes at around disco tempo, it’s by far the slowest and most reflective moment.

Chris Korda - Changing Climate

“Save the planet. Kill yourself.”

“Thou shalt not procreate.”

 “Human extinction while we still can.” 

The American artist Chris Korda holds what you might call a more extreme position on the question of climate change. These slogans come from the Church Of Euthanasia, the “anti-human” religious organisation Korda founded in the ‘90s. There isn’t nearly enough time here to dissect the group’s broad range of activism and antics, but it’s safe to say the Church reached notoriety, with an appearance on the Jerry Springer Show—the episode was called “I Want to Join a Suicide Cult”—helping fan the flames.  

Korda’s environmental activism also finds a voice through house and techno. She’s been particularly prolific lately, releasing three albums, two of them on Perlon. The label described the latest of these, Apologize To The Future, as “the first album entirely devoted to the pivotal issues of the 21st century: climate change, economic inequality, intergenerational injustice, anti-natalism, the singularity, and human extinction.” 

The album is as bold and intriguing as it sounds on paper: a fully vocal electro-rap-techno LP recorded entirely in complex polymeter, meaning tracks contain multiple time signatures. We’d like to highlight “Changing Climate” both for its classically uplifting Detroit techno vibes and its brutally direct lyrics: “Global warming’s here to stay. Mass extinction’s underway. You’d better kneel down and pray. Geoengineering saves the day.”

4hero - Loveless feat. Ursula Rucker

For lyrics of craft and sophistication, though, we’ll next turn to Ursula Rucker’s vocal performance on 4hero’s “Loveless.” The US spoken-word artist, who now has a long history of collaborations with dance music artists, is every bit the Earth Mother figure on this 1998 track, which opened 4hero’s Mercury Prize-nominated LP, Two Pages. She explores a celestial dialogue between stars, with Rucker telling the tragic story of “my sister afar,” Planet Earth. 

“They’ve loved me as would an unfaithful lover,

part-time and half-assed,

Now unmasked

is their deceit.

No more sweet,

sneaky thrill seekings.

Tomorrow brings

nevers and nothings.

Ended days

for my world

and its unchanging ways.” 

Rucker’s poetic cadence is mirrored by 4Hero’s instrumentation and drum & bass rhythm. The Rhodes lines fall in cascading patterns. Strings quiver. The double-bass slides and pops. For such an utterly lovely piece of music, it’s unsettling that this tale of Earth has a fatal ending. 

“No, no it’s too late for repentance,

accept your death sentence.

I’ve given you all I can.

Such beauty and life

you’ll never have again.

Now it’s the end.” 

Blanck Mass - Creature / West Fuqua

Consumerism is poisoning us and killing the planet. That’s the theme powering Animated Violence Mild, the fourth Blanck Mass album. It isn’t always an easy listen. Benjamin John Power, who’s also one half of the band Fuck Buttons, channels the ugly excesses of consumer culture into an obese mix of stadium trance, hardcore and noise. It’s an album overflowing with plastic moods and utter contempt for what our pursuit of stuff is doing to the planet. 

“In this post-industrial, post-enlightenment religion of ourselves, we have manifested a serpent of consumerism which now coils back upon us,” Power said when the album was released last year. “It seduces us with our own bait as we betray the better instincts of our nature and the future of our own world. We throw ourselves out of our own garden. We poison ourselves to the edges of an endless sleep.” 

On a record that absolutely channels that anger, “Creature / West Fuqua” stands out. It has almost no beats and dials down the intensity. The incredibly powerful drone section eventually melts to reveal heavenly voices and harp. It’s like we get to enjoy the Garden of Eden that Power spoke about, before the next track comes along and stamps on the serenity. An apt metaphor, perhaps.

Radiohead – Idioteque

Do touring musicians, whose carbon footprint far exceeds that of the average person, get to speak out about climate change? That was the question an open letter, signed by famous figures including Jude Law, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mel B and the Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, addressed last year. Their conclusion? “Dear journalists who have called us hypocrites. You’re right.” 

However, they went on to highlight the logical fallacy of tu quoque. Or put another way, even a hypocrite can be right. Focussing on the lives of individuals is arguably a distraction from the far more urgent broader issues. “The stories that you write calling us climate hypocrites will not silence us,” they said. “We invite all people with platforms and profiles to join us and move beyond fear, to use your voices fearlessly to amplify the real story.” 

As “Idioteque,” from the 2000-released Radiohead album Kid A, shows, Thom Yorke has been attempting to amplify the story for at least 20 years. Yorke is a master of conveying existential anxiety, and “Idioteque” ranks as one of his very best examples. “We’re not scaremongering,” he sings. “This is really happening, happening.”

The track’s slamming electro beat and hypnotically eerie sample have meant “Idioteque” has continued to be a favourite among DJs. Clubbers may not have been tuned into the track’s ideas, but as this playlist perhaps shows, it might no longer be possible—or preferable—to keep climate change and the dance floor separated.