William Orbit: A Tale of Two Albums

William Orbit - My Oracle Lives Uptown.jpg
William Orbit - Strange Cargo III.jpg

Wwwaaayyy back in 1993 an album came out that set me on a path of deep exploration of all things Electronica, borderline “dance”, and trance/ambient. Of course, back then, it wasn’t called that. It was just called “rave/dance” or “electronic” in most record stores.

That album was William Orbit’s Strange Cargo III.

It was a pivotal album in my music collection. Combining a depth & precision in production that any geek would be awed by with sometimes poignant and often beautifully ethereal lyrics all on top of brilliant compositions yielded an album of auditory bliss.

For many years, Strange Cargo III was the album I played for anyone claiming that bleep blorp compositions weren’t really music. And they walked away proven wrong, generally off to pick up a copy.


An aside; you might be wondering why Madonna’s Ray of Light appears at left. To many, Ray Of Light was a total surprise. It exhibited a depth of composition and lushness of sound that was unprecedented either in Madonna’s catalog or in major pop releases, in general.

One listen to Strange Cargo III and the connection is unmistakable; Ray of Light is a William Orbit album with Madonna authoring lyrics and performing vocals!

This is important because a relatively small percentage of avid music fans have heard the name William Orbit, and yet his work is pervasive and unmistakable, once you know the sound. Signature singles & mixes from Depeche Mode, Erasure, U2, Beth Orton, and many others were produced by Orbit. As evidenced by his discography, William Orbit’s impact on popular music has been huge!

16 years after SCIII, Orbit has released My Oracle Lives Uptown.

And this is where this particular “review” goes sideways.

After the second listen, I dropped a tweet:

Bill Bumgarner: Meh. William Orbit’s newest album (Oracle something) is… meh. Nowhere near as good as Strange Cargo III.

Not much later, I see:

William Orbit: @bbum give a couple more spins, u never know, it might not be so far behind SCIII 🙂

… and I was a bit taken aback. Not so much because William Orbit had reached out through the twitterverse to respond with kindly to what was a rather snarky and unfair critique, but because I realized that my tweet was… well… both unfair and just a bit rude.

Offensive & rude in that it is a completely unfair critique of the album.

My Oracle Lives Uptown is an excellent album. The production notes are perfect– no surprise, given the artist– and the composition is rich and melodic.

It is, however, a very different album than Strange Cargo III. Whereas SCIII is a set of perfectly presented singles, Oracle is a part of a conceptual whole that maintains a specific ambience throughout.

SCIII benefits from very strong vocals — it was the vehicle via which I, and much of the rest of the world, was introduced to Beth Orton, for example — and the tracks are composed to the strengths of the performer and since there are multiple vocals on the album, some of the tracks feel very different than others; ranging from what would become vocal trance to hip hop.

Oracle focuses entirely on almost purely instrumental compositions throughout. There are vocals, but they are more a part of the overall instrumentation than the lead melody. Each track has multiple parts and, overall, the melodies and instrumentation show a maturity beyond that of SCIII.

Yet, listen closely and you’ll hear threads of sound, melodies, and production that are distinctly Orbit.

I responded to William Orbits’ tweet:

Bill Bumgarner @WilliamOrbit Will do. Some of the best albums in my collection only happened after the nth listen over m weeks. Production is spot on,tho.

To which I received:

William Orbit: @bbum the best music improves slowly w/ age. but not trying to sell you on oracle, SCII is a hard one to trump!

So true and the primary source of my chagrin; I should know better.

And having written this while listening to Oracle a couple of more times, proof positive.

It really is an awesome album. $10 well spent.

I still prefer SCIII because my tastes run a bit more to vocal trance than nearly pure instrumentals, but that’s just me. Then again, I also haven’t listened to Oracle the umpteen million times that I have listened to SCIII. Another 10 years and I’ll know where it really stands.

If you prefer instrumental electronic to vocal stuff, you’ll probably prefer My Oracle Lives Uptown.

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6 Responses to “William Orbit: A Tale of Two Albums”

  1. Jannika | website copywriting says:

    William Orbit is the only reason I bought and still listen to Madonna’s “Ray of Light”. He has an atmospheric style that sets him apart. Many trance artists in the early 90s share this sensibility–Orbital is the one that easily comes to mind. Anyway, I definitely miss early 90s trance.

  2. Peter Lyons says:

    Hi BBum! Listening to “Harry Flowers” on rhapsody now. Sounds like a tripped out Zelda level.

  3. jburka says:

    another favorite Orbit-produced and co-written album is Caroline Lavelle’s _Spirit_ from ’95. Strangely, while I couldn’t tell you how many Orbit-related albums are in my collection, I’ve never owned any of the stuff released solely under his own name!

  4. Jack Small says:

    Also a huge Orbit fan here (the original “WO”!). I was lucky enough to catch an album in 1991 called “The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld”. I didn’t see it in the discography, If you do not have it you must drop whatever it is you are doing and go get it right now. I’ve been listening to it for 18 years now and every time I still hear something new. It never fails to move me.

    I stopped buying Madonna albums a long time ago, but this sole recommendation is enough for me to give it a try!

    And if you are actually reading this William Orbit I want to humbly thank you. I think you said it best: “I’ve been waiting for music like this all my life.” And then I found it Truly a beautiful thing you do.

    Great post Bill!

  5. bbum says:

    Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld is an AWESOME album. Love it. Been listening to it for a long time, too. My wife and I used +Little Fluffy Clouds+ as one of our wedding songs.

    The Orb’s BBC Sessions is also a phenomenal collection of tracks. Any Orb fan will look at the track list and think “I have these”. Probably not these mixes– it was all pretty new to me and I have just about every Orb album and single around.

    Great stuff. Goes very well with SCIII & Oracle.

  6. Jason F. says:

    I think that the drums throughout the album are just amazing….

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