Released several years before critics coined the term "trip-hop," Massive Attack's 1991 debut is a classic late-night album; part of a long line of records that reconfigured boisterous, uptempo styles into restrained, introspective headphone listens. Where a younger group like the xx transforms the club-friendly strains of funky house into an intimate indie-pop dialogue, Blue Lines conjured its heady atmosphere from vintage hip-hop breaks, laid-back dub rhythms, brassy soul-diva vocals, noir-ish film scores and drawling, English-accented rapping.
As for how this all fits into the scene Blue Lines helped spark, trip-hop isn't necessarily a bad phrase to convey the blunted B-boy sensibility on display here — it's just too limiting. "Unfinished Sympathy," in particular, stands apart from any specific historical context, with its tear-jerking strings and Shara Nelson's delicately powerful vocals recalling the orchestral soul of Isaac Hayes and Gamble and Huff. The free-association dialogue between 3D and Tricky (then known as Tricky Kid) on "Daydreaming" would be just as casually hypnotic even if it hadn't preceded Snoop Dogg's blazed nonchalance on Dr. Dre's The Chronic by more than a year, and the Streets' U.K. rap landmark Original Pirate Material by more than a decade. Reggae singer Horace Andy's supple tenor adds a further timeless quality to loping songs like "One Love" and the dub-driven "Five Man Army."