The 10 Albums We'd Give to Aliens To Have Them Understand Humanity

On September 2, 2016

by Jacob Witz


As of right now, only two artifacts of human civilization exist beyond our Solar System. They are the Voyager spacecrafts, twin angels dispatched by NASA in 1977 to explore the cosmos in hopes of encountering intelligent life. Aboard these vessels are copies of the Golden Record, an ambitious token of humanity encoded with the sights and sounds of our planet.

The pace of these rockets, approximately 38,610 miles per hour, has already been outmatched by the advancement of Earth within the last 40 years. In terms of meta goals, we’ve not moved an inch - poverty, disease and oppression enslave billions, with global peace still within the realm of science fiction. What’s no longer science fiction are the computers we carry in our pockets, connected to an invisible network of lightspeed information. This revolution has made Earth a perfect target for extraterrestrial speculation and potentially a candidate for intergalactic friendship.

So maybe it’s time to launch a new message, one which truly conveys life on our newly-wired planet. The music on this journey should serve as an education on the human condition as well as a sampler for the sounds we’ve found and created. To appeal to as universal of a galactic audience as possible, we should operate on two assumptions:

  1. The lifeforms which discover this record have no capacity to translate Earth languages.

  2. The lifeforms which discover this record have no prior knowledge, understanding or awareness of human history.

With those restrictions in place, the following 10 records have been chosen to reconstruct the pleasure and pain of human existence in sound.


Sun Ra - The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra

“It is a mystery to talk about A Mystery. And that's what the Creator is: A Mystery.” - Interview with Sun Ra, 1988

Sun Ra, like Socrates before him, knew only that he understood nothing. And the universe is approximately 99.99% nothing, which makes him an excellent candidate for interstellar travel. Were we to portray Earth as somehow centered or important, extraterrestrial life would return nothing but pity for our ignorance. The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra argues the exact opposite: that we are but an impossibly small speck revolving around a modest ball of fire, itself a mere flicker in the grand scheme of the cosmos.

The album does nothing to mask the uncertain terror of wandering beyond the gravity of our established planet. Horns zip and revolve around each other like gravity-stricken comets until they ricochet off into a void of silence. Any moments of harmony are pure coincidence.

Somehow, these mad compositions reveal the presence of something greater than humanity. Sun Ra’s band travels a journey through this record that perhaps only makes sense within the context of gravitational forces beyond human comprehension. The goal of this journey is never directly stated, but listening reveals glimpses of these forces, which diffuse the music into various states of matter over time and propel it forth as one of the greatest achievements of jazz music.

To call humanity anything other than a chaotic mishap is giving us far too much credit- but Sun Ra shows how humans have made something out of our nothing. Having heard The Heliocentric Worlds, extraterrestrial life may even question their own relevance in the cosmos, thereby forging an intergalactic bond on the basis of existential dread.


Arca - Mutant

While Sun Ra was more concerned with the beyond, Arca’s Mutant dives head first into the alien worlds that exist within ourselves. His mastery of electronic sound has the most potential to convey to extraterrestrial life what lies underneath our own skin.

What does lie beneath our own skin, and within our minds? Our second message could be intercepted by gaseous, molten or even ethereal lifeforms, whereas humans are still trapped in messy cages of flesh susceptible to breakage. Even our most personal and defining organ, the brain, will soon be outpaced by the machines which it has built to assist itself.

Arca finds a way to make these flaws angelic and essential with Mutant, which writes an endlessly woven story of love and betrayal between soul and body. His music gives reason to our fascinating human rituals like cherishing baby teeth and having sex, which are grotesque yet absolutely formative.

The synth patches Arca uses sound uncanny by way of their warbling imperfection, as if they’ve existed far beyond the era of electronic music, which is why this album is essential to describe modern day humanity: because other worlds should know we are still discovering aspects to ourselves that we’ve carried since the dawn of our existence.


The Automatics Group - Summer Mix

It’s unlikely that any government would grant the music blasted from pregames and raves airtime on Earth’s definitive message for the universe- which is a shame, because pop music, especially that which runs in the background of everyday life, is just as important to the human experience as high-art.

One workaround is to include Summer Mix on the next ship. The Automatics Group reconstructed pop music in such a way as to isolate its defining structures. They did so by performing the mathematical operation known as a discrete Fourier transformation on the digital files of songs from groups like Swedish House Mafia and Supermode, which eliminated roughly half of the original songs’ audio data.

The only elements which remain are steady thumps, whirs and ambient bellows, which manage to be just as stimulating as the songs from which they’ve been salvaged. It’s dance  music for the subconscious, the tracks which play in our dreams and evade comprehension. If commercial pop is a sneeze, Summer Mix is the tickling sensation which precedes one.

What makes this work of art so fascinating is how it dissects the methodology of modern pop music, which is more consumer science than art. Popularity necessitates reliability, along with inoffensive, repetitive structures that appeal to every marketable demographic. But forging this golden formula for pop is an art in and of itself, and “Summer Mix” would give extraterrestrial life an essential glimpse into the burgeoning world of commercial music and why it ensnares us.


Principe Discos - Mambos Levis D'Outro Mundo

Cultural visibility is an endless struggle, especially for ethnic groups whose music does not appeal to the sensibilities of the institutional music industry. But the inclusion of this Afro-Portuguese compilation is more than just an arbitrary pick to dismantle the eurocentricity of this collection - it is a perfect example of how local cultures have evolved to thrive in a digital society.

The Principe Discos label has gone to great lengths to release local music that appeals to the greater world without compromising for the sake of Western sensibility. Despite its universal appeal, one would be hard-pressed to describe this music to an American music executive, let alone an extraterrestrial lifeform. In the words of Principe founder Pedro Gomes from his interview with Resident Advisor, “It's not global in the sense of United Colours Of Benetton bullshit. It just works. People just react to it.”

Reacting, whether by dancing or gasping, is the only logical way to experience this music. Each artist on the compilation has an entirely unique style, yet their tracks flow perfectly together via rhythms and traits that have thrived in African music for centuries. Wonky synths and frantic rhythms create a space in which the past and future can coexist in harmony.

What’s even more interesting are the individual samples on the album, which represent a patchwork of worldwide technology and influence. While the drums on this compilation are distinctly African, they’ve been rebuilt with 808’s and rigid western programs like Fruity Loops, granting them access to club speakers around the world. This technological preservation of history has allowed the Artists on Principe Discos to translate their local sounds to a universal language.


Daniel Johnston - Hi, How Are You?

The concept of individuality may not have a perfect translation in the language of hivemind societies, making the explanation of such a concept all the more important to include in Earth’s definitive statement. It’s not as simple as featuring a singer/songwriter; certain albums can be the work of one artist yet play like an ensemble performance, especially now that software has allowed musicians to combine their own separate instrumentals into a single song.

More so than any other album, Hi, How Are You tells the story of one human and one human only. Each track never includes more instruments that could be played at once; when Daniel Johnston plays the piano, you can hear his voice quiver in accordance to the strength of his keystrokes. The tape-quality recording strengthens this sense of solitude and makes the album an essential recording of the singular human.

While the album expresses human solitude through sound alone, it remains timeless because of Johnston’s exploration into every facet of human individuality, to say nothing of lyrics. Each song offers a brief yet comprehensive view of the emotions which whiplash through our head daily, from euphoric freedom to utter isolation. Johnston displays this entire spectrum with heartbreaking accuracy.

There is power in individuality, but also an unbearable weight which all humans carry every second of their lives. Hi, How Are You bears this weight unto its listeners with inescapable force.


Charles Wuorinen: Time's Encomium

Science and music have a deep-rooted romance that has flourished within the last half century- this was most apparent at the dawn of the synthesizer, the first invention which would open up a world unheard for all of human history. Uncharted territories like these are ripe for colonization and seizure, which makes it all the more miraculous that the first commanders of synthesized sounds were musicians with a goal of selfless discovery.

The 1970 Pulitzer Prize-winning Time’s Encomium encapsulates the power of these discoveries in its exploration of electronic music. Charles Wuorinen never attempted to recreate classical compositions or patriotic tunes within the confines of Columbia University’s RCA Mark II Synthesizer; he merely summons the frequencies from other dimensions, letting them shriek in awe of themselves and gasp for breath after millions of years in nonexistence.

There’s a chance that Earth will send an Imperial spaceship in lieu of its golden-record bearing-rocket, seeking to monetize and colonize whatever comes its way. But those seeking to gain and spread knowledge freely will always be the first to make contact, and they deserve to present this album as a symbol of humanity’s relationship with that which it discovers.


J Dilla - Donuts

There’s no simple way to explain music culture in a truly universal language - enough effort is spent on convincing elders that contemporary media consumption is ethical and sensible. Include the inability to speak via human language, and the challenge of giving extraterrestrials a glimpse into the history and culture of music becomes even more difficult.

J Dilla is an expert at preserving his samples with all of the life and context of their original sources, which basically makes Donuts a comprehensive field recording of pop and hip hop history. Some samples loop through whole songs, never changing their tone or tempo. Others start normally and warp their pitch and speed, or cut abruptly to reveal themselves as an incomplete section of a past recording. These allusions to the past make Donuts feel nostalgic even to young listeners.

The relatively short turnover of human generations allow individuals to shape their past as much as their future. For those with malicious intent, this could take the form of fabricating and erasing history to force a narrative of superiority. For J Dilla and thousands of other musicians, they wisely used this power to recycle their own histories into art for a new generation. This deep respect and relationship to the past is essential to understanding human behavior, and no album expresses it better than Donuts.


Minor Threat - Out of Step

While humans talk a big game, images of our savage bodies would easily reveal our evolutionary flaws. Voyager 1 included images of humans in vulnerable states, performing simpleton acts like being stuck in traffic and eating, which reflect on our beastlike nature and present us as a harmless species to onlookers. This was a wise move by NASA; If we only display humanity in a contemplative, evolved light, we run the risk of being called out as liars by our galactic superiors.

Suspiciously missing from the Voyager, though, were depictions of violence, war and bloodshed, even though we’ve struggled with these plagues since the dawn of mankind. Merely plastering this atrocities on our next cosmic message could provoke interstellar conflict, or even worse, a writing-off of humanity as a savage society. So how do we explain the presence of our canine teeth without flashing them in aggression?

Out Of Step took humanity’s primal subconscious and converted it into a universal symbol of rebellion. Ian MacKaye’s vocals, backed by snarling guitar and breakneck drums, scream anger without a need for lyrical explanation. Despite this unruly power, the album comes off as heroic and hopeful, building a brighter future by seizing one at the neck.

With its harmless aggression, Out of Step could educate other life about primal humanity without mistakenly declaring war. It never takes aim at its listeners, and lo-fi production serves as a glass barrier with which to witness their terror without fear of personal harm. Perhaps within this cage, Minor Threat can serve to dismantle intergalactic oppression without inciting it.


Kraftwerk - Computer World

With record hours spent streaming movies and playing video games from home, society is on a track to completely outsource romance to the machines. Most people already express daily gratitude to their phones and computers for effortlessly computing our lives- it’s likely this relationship will blossom into deep love with future innovations.

Kraftwerk identified this trend during an era of monochrome monitors and floppy disks with Computer World, an ode to machines that has been waiting for society to catch up with its radical predictions. The synths which define this album are more thematic than utility, sounding just as conscious as their programmers. When a human Kraftwerk member yearns for a digital rendezvous on “Computer Love,” his synth whistles in agreement, signaling that their love is mutual.

Home computers were originally marketed as tools for calculation and word processing, but now play critical roles in our social lives and connection to all of Earth. No story of contemporary humanity would be complete without mention of these machines, especially since they may be the only remnants of our existence by the time our messages are intercepted. Computer World sings this tale by exposing mankind’s vulnerability towards that which we both control and are controlled by.


William Basinski - The Disintegration Loops

Earth is small. Humans are smaller. Human history on Earth is a molecule of a sand-grain in the hourglass of our universal time, which makes an individual’s lifespan a quantum particle that may or may not exist. Proving this existence, proving that human life is as rich and fulfilling as those of stars and comets, may be the most daunting challenge of this theoretical mission.

It’s hard enough to prove this on planet Earth itself, where humans are conditioned to seek peace of mind through stability and and value their worth on the product of their physical labor. Only monumental tragedies seem to shatter this prescribed complacency and prove the matter of human existence.

On September 11th, 2001, William Basinski gave this matter a sound. In the process of digitizing some tapes of his ambient loops, he realized that the physical tape itself was disintegrating from excessive play. With the backdrop of a dusk painted with the billowing smoke of the Twin Towers, Basinski recorded the entire lifespan of his slowly dying tapes and created what many consider to be the defining piece of music from a defining moment in human history.

His loops start vivid and soothing, ideal background music for any activity. For the first fifteen minutes, there’s no apparent change, maybe some newly perceived crackles that may or may not have been there all along- but as time goes on, you adjust to a new and decayed version of the exact same loop, thankful for whatever bits are left to cherish. The tides of time erode each sonic detail so gently so that it feels more like progression than death.

Some of the most iconic images from 9/11 were people carrying on with their jobs in the shadows of terror and collapse, somehow carrying on in the presence of total despair. The Disintegration Loops carries the gentle whirr of the motor which all of humanity depends on to propel it through the mundanity and hopelessness of such an existence. Only when extraterrestrials experience the pleasure in this degrading repetition will they understand the gravity of human existence.

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