Steve Aoki is known for many things: his head-banging live performances; his penchant for crowd-surfing; his iconic facial hair. But most fans forget that the Dim Mak exec has been in the business for 15 years. Aoki has had a hand in the careers of the Bloody Beetroots, MSTRKRFT and countless others, not to mention releasing his own singles and remixes along the way. It’s only natural, then, that his debut artist album Wonderland draws on a myriad of influences and experiences, from his hard-rock roots to his more recent collaborations with EDM titans like Tiesto and Laidback Luke.
Listening to Wonderland as a whole feels like taking a meandering trip through Aoki’s creative mind: the electro-meets-techno “Steve Jobs,” with its video game synths, is followed by the hands-in-the-air radio pop hook of “Heartbreaker.” It may sound crazy but, just like everything Aoki does, it simply works. Wonderland‘s many musical styles don’t feel disjointed; rather, it’s the kind of album that caters to EDM fans of every strain, mixing the Top 40-ready with the down and dirty. Oh, and the best part? Aoki’s voice doesn’t appear on a single track. But his influence and vision are present in every note of this richly varied, high-energy LP. Click past the break for our track-by-track review.
1. Earthquakey People ft. Rivers Cuomo
At first listen, it’s hard to believe “Earthquakey People” was made by the same producer behind tracks like “No Beef” and “Turbulence.” However, where the Rivers Cuomo-assisted single lacks in volume and aggressive synths, it makes up in melody and extreme, unrelenting catchiness. The hook on the track – “I’ll still keep on dancing” – is too much fun to forget, and the song is a perfect start to Wonderland. Say what you will about this more radio-ready side of Aoki, but “Earthquakey People” still moves a crowd like the hardest of bangers.
2. Ladi Dadi ft. Wynter Gordon
For “Ladi Dadi” and “Earthquakey People,” Aoki chose to release his personal remixes (called “Part II” and “The Sequel,” respectively) before dropping the original versions. This tactic comes back to haunt “Ladi Dadi,” as it truly lacks something without the wobbly breaks present in “Part II.” Wynter Gordon’s vocals feel halfhearted and almost whiny over generic prog-house beat. We’ll keep jamming out to Aoki’s road-tested remix for now.
3. Dangerous ft. Zuper Blahq
“I’m In The House,” Aoki’s last collaboration with Zuper Blahq – will.i.am’s questionably spelled “secret” alter ego – was an absolute smash, so it’s only natural that the duo would collaborate again for a Wonderland track. “Dangerous” doesn’t stray far from the path carved by “House” – an electro beat with auto-tuned, pseudo-rapped vocals and party-starter lyrics. This song has more of a modern feel, however, with Wolfgang Gartner-inspired synths and a bigger drop. “Dangerous” will be right at home in Aoki’s sets during the Deadmeat Tour.
4. Come With Me (Deadmeat) ft. Polina Goudieva
We kind of hate ourselves for saying (or even thinking) this, but Polina Goudieva sounds a lot like Katy Perry on “Come With Me.” Which isn’t to say it’s not worth a listen: there’s a wistful romance here that breaks up the album nicely. The beat is relatively simple for Aoki, as he seems to be experimenting with more of a trouse sound and kept out all but the most elemental details. The “Deadmeat” parenthetical seems a bit tacked on to “Come With Me,” but we guess he had to plug his tour somewhere.
5. Emergency ft. Lil Jon and Chiddy Bang
“Emergency” is the kind of crazy-fun track we can easily see Aoki rocking out to during one of his shows. Lil Jon provides the hype as Chiddy raps rapid-fire over a sick drumline, perfectly merging the EDM and hip-hop worlds with a little rock edge. The song’s chorus is begging for a sing-a-long, and it’s simple enough for even the least sober audience member to belt out at a show – crucial factors for its success on the airwaves and on tour. Our only wish is that the knocking bridge went on a bit longer – sorry, Travis Barker, but “Emergency” easily has the best drums on Wonderland.
6. Livin’ My Love ft. LMFAO and Nervo
Aoki keeps the momentum going with “Livin’ My Love,” another radio-friendly tune. LMFAO does most of the vocal heavy lifting here, with quintessentially Party Rock verses and chorus. Australian hotties (and DA favorites) Nervo turn up the attitude with sexy accent vocals and a super-sassy verse. Though some dance fans may object to LMFAO’s presence on the album, they are – for better or worse – insanely popular. And anything that drums up more interest in EDM is a good thing – even if it’s LMFAO rapping about “cyber-hating.”
7. Control Freak ft. Blaqstarr and My Name Is Kay
“Control Freak” has a fantastic nu-disco feel: a thick bass guitar takes the lead and makes for an irresistible groove. Kay sings a light, seductive vocal while Blaqstarr spits a quick verse at the start of the song, giving the song a current vibe it might otherwise lack. It’s almost as though Aoki is showing off here – he can truly make a great song in any genre. “Control Freak” is clearly out of his comfort zone, with tons of instrumentation and not even a hint of wobble, but he manages to create a throwback track that holds up by any standards.
8. Steve Jobs ft. Angger Dimas
“Steve Jobs,” originally titled “The 80s,” was obviously retitled as a tribute to the late Apple founder, and it’s certainly a fitting one. Aoki and Dimas made a purely electronic track (in stark contrast to “Control Freak”), with pitch-bending and video game-like effects that could clearly only be made on a Mac. Despite everything that’s going on in this song, it still manages to have an emotional arc; it cuts among a few different types of sounds and really grows from beginning to end. The album version of “Steve Jobs” is instrumental, but we have a feeling that it will must-use for Aoki and any other DJ who wants to make a kick-ass bootleg.
9. Heartbreaker ft. Lovefoxxx
“Heartbreaker” picks up where “Control Freak” left off – Aoki seems to have let the former’s instrument-heavy disco vibe evolve into the exuberant dance-pop of the latter. There are still piano flourishes on “Heartbreaker,” but they’re backed up by proggy synths and a prominent downbeat. The song is similar to “Earthquakey People” as well, since it’s not as hard-hitting as some of his better-known tracks. Fans of songs like “Wake Up Call” may not get it at first, but it’ll no doubt earn him some new listeners among the Top 40 set.
10. Cudi the Kid ft. Kid Cudi and Travis Barker
“Cudi the Kid” starts out like most other Kid Cudi songs, dreamy and reflective. But this is an Aoki song, dammit, and that becomes clear after the first rendition of the chorus. Cudi’s vocals fade into frenetic Travis Barker drumming and an ultra-hard dubby grind. It’s literally impossible to keep from moving during the breakdown of this song; we’re looking forward to the Deadmeat crowds turning into mosh pits in honor of this song’s angry rock edge.
11. Ooh ft. Rob Roy
We didn’t know who Rob Roy was before hearing this track, but it doesn’t matter: “Ooh” is simply dripping with swag, thanks in part to his down-south drawl and superb delivery. The winding, rock-meets-wobble interludes don’t hurt either. “Ooh” has a considerably slower pace than most EDM tracks, and could easily appear on a hip-hop mixtape – let’s just say an Avicii single could never rattle our speakers like this.
12. The Kids Will Have Their Say ft. Sick Boy with former members of The Exploited and Die Kreuzen
“The Kids Will Have Their Say” is a far cry from a dance song. Rather, it’s a screaming-mad hard rock song that is not for the faint of heart. Anyone other than Aoki probably wouldn’t be able to get away with putting a song like “The Kids Will Have Their Say” on an album alongside come-one-come-all tracks like “Livin’ My Love” and “Earthquakey People.” We just didn’t know Steve had so much anger to let out!
13. Earthquakey People (The Sequel) ft. Rivers Cuomo
Aoki’s remix of the lead single did so well with listeners that he added it to Wonderland alongside the original. The track merges two of Aoki’s huge talents: an ability to create big electro beats and a strong ear for catchy melodies. If you don’t know and love this track by now, we don’t know why you’re here.
Wonderland is being released as a joint effort between Aoki’s own Dim Mak and Ultra Records, which means double the promotional muscle. Which means you’ll be hearing a lot of this album in 2012. Luckily, there are sounds to suit all tastes and inclinations on this album, and beats complicated enough to warrant multiple listens. This year will no doubt be a big one for Aoki, as he hits the road and tests these tracks on his Deadmeat Tour; we have a feeling his effort will be well received, garnering him the credit he deserves after more than a decade in the industry.