Electronic dance music, or EDM as it's somewhat controversially called these days, has existed in one form or another since the advent of the first drum machine. Of the millions of electronic tracks produced since, these 20 represent the best of the best, as determined by L.A. Weekly's meticulous but highly unscientific Department of Chair Dancing and Raver Education (DOCDARE).
DOCDARE judged thousands (OK, hundreds — budget cuts, yo) of classic dance music tracks based on such criteria as popularity, trend-setting, influence, timelessness, general awesomeness and the frequency with which snippets of them are still dropped by big-name, mainstream DJs in an effort to prove they're, like, totally legit and not just in it for the Rihanna remix cash. We tried to represent all eras, including the present, because some tracks are just instant classics. We tried to represent a mix of genres but failed because we're house heads and won't apologize for it. Don't worry, though — there's lots of techno on the list, too, and maybe even some dubstep. (Don't say we didn't warn you.)
Are these really the 20 best dance music tracks of all time? Maybe. Maybe not. But we can guarantee this: If you're an EDM DJ, you can drop any one of these tunes into your set and make someone's night. 20. Moby, “Go” (1990) By sampling "Laura Palmer's Theme" from David Lynch's Twin Peaks soundtrack, and layering it with his own twinkling synths and a sample (uncredited) of singer Jocelyn Brown's soulful wail, New York producer Richard Melville Hall, aka Moby, was able to craft a distinctly American take on British-style techno, filled with widescreen drama and heart-on-sleeve emotion — which perfectly suited the ecstasy-fueled euphoria of the early rave scene and became one of the era's most recognizable hits.
19. Azzido Da Bass, “Dooms Night” (Timo Maas Remix) (1999) German producer Timo Maas' self-described "hard and wet" take on progressive house achieved its greatest mainstream recognition with his irresistibly wonky, breakbeat-driven rework of an otherwise forgettable track by fellow German Azzido Da Bass. Maas used analog synths like the Korg MS-20 to achieve his remix's purring bass lines and its most recognizable element, an oscillating synth riff that, when heard on a good club sound system, seems to slash across the dance floor like a helicopter blade, rising to a ridiculous 250 BPM on the track's crowd-igniting breakdown. Though thousands of prog-house producers spent the next five years imitating the hard-hitting sound of "Dooms Night," no one ever quite succeeded (including, some would argue, Maas himself). 18. Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers, “Get Lucky” (2013) By combining Pharrell's pop songwriting chops with Rodgers' funk/disco guitar and their own smooth "French touch" house grooves, Daft Punk engineered our decade's most perfect dance single, one that downplayed the "E" in EDM and helped inspire a renewed interest in dance music made not just on laptops but with actual instruments. The universal appeal of "Get Lucky" was almost without precedent — everyone from kandi kids to soccer moms to Stephen Colbert embraced the track, meaning it's probably the only song on this entire list your parents have heard of (unless you have really cool parents). 17. Underworld, “Shudder/King of Snake” (1999) After the unexpected success of "Born Slippy," a lot of acts would have either coasted or crumbled. Instead, Underworld came storming back onto the scene with the most intense album of their career, Beaucoup Fish, highlighted by the gob-smacking "Shudder/King of Snake." Following an abstract, distorted guitar intro, the track settles into a relentless groove — borrowed from Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder's "I Feel Love" — that just seems to build and build, never releasing its inherent tension even as it becomes ever more frenetic. Many a late '90s/early 2000s dance floor went mental to its layers of percussion, piano and Karl Hyde's stuttering, shamanic vocals. 16. Phuture, “Acid Tracks” (1987) The Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer was popular in the 1980s Chicago house scene for years before, by happy accident, producers discovered that by distorting its sound and playing with the frequency and resonance controls, they could produce a harsh, squelching tone that gave their tracks an alien, psychedelic vibe. The new sound was eventually dubbed "acid house," possibly in reference to this early exercise in TB-303 abuse produced by the trio of Spanky, Herb J and DJ Pierre. There's plenty of debate over who first unlocked the 303's mind-altering potential, but no other early acid track was more influential in making the "squelch" one of the foundational sounds of electronic dance music.
15. Justice, “Waters of Nazareth" (2005) Though they would later score a much bigger hit with "D.A.N.C.E.," the French duo of Xavier de Rosnay and Gaspard Augé made their biggest impact on dance music with this, their debut single. Justice weren't the first producers to run their synthesizers through fuzzbox-like layers of distortion, but something about the way they did it on "Waters of Nazareth" seemed wholly original, a bracing mix of punk-rock grit and big-room drama. The track helped make electro-house the leading sound of EDM over the next five years, paving the way for future stars like Deadmau5 and Steve Aoki and foreshadowing the even heavier distortion that producers like Skrillex would soon bring to the game. 14. The Chemical Brothers, “Block Rockin’ Beats” (1997) Big beat, a frenetic mishmash of breakbeats, techno, hip-hop samples and rock guitars, was the sound of late-'90s rave culture, and no track better encapsulated its manic appeal than the opening track from The Chemical Brothers' era-defining second album, Dig Your Own Hole. More than any other track before it, "Block Rockin' Beats" proved that dance music could be as massive as stadium rock. Within two years of its release, the Chems would be headlining Woodstock. 13. Plastikman, “Spastik” (1993) Richie Hawtin is one of the few producers in all of dance music who has managed to stay relevant with today's EDM fans while maintaining his underground cred among the old-schoolers. It helps that he has built up one of the best bodies of original work of any techno artist in the business, especially under his celebrated Plastikman alias. Together with his fellow Detroit producers Robert Hood, Jeff Mills and Daniel Bell, Hawtin pioneered minimal techno in the early '90s, producing the genre-shaping classic "Spastik" in 1993 — an austere yet pummeling track so timelessly hypnotic that Dubfire of Deep Dish had a hit with a remix of it just a few years ago.
12. New Order, “Blue Monday” (1983) "Blue Monday" set the tone for '80s synth-pop, but its influence on dance music was just as far-reaching and as significant as any classic '80s house or techno track. Taking inspiration from the futuristic disco of Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder (the stuttering kick drum that famously opens the track's extended, 12-inch version is directly cribbed from the chorus of Summer's "One Love"), the former members of Joy Division (plus keyboardist Gillian Gilbert) hitched their melancholy songwriting style to a custom-built sequencer/drum machine combo and unleashed one of the most famous and widely imitated grooves in pop music history. No wonder it remains the bestselling 12-inch single of all time. 11. Skrillex, “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” (2010) Dubstep existed as a dance music subculture, mostly centered in Britain, for over a decade before Sonny Moore tossed his Skrillex production alias into the scene like a shrapnel-packed hand grenade. Pumping up dubstep's heaviest, most aggressive elements — massive, distorted bass drops, shrieking synthesizers, stuttering kick drums — and incongruously juxtaposing them against pretty, melodic passages and the occasional four-on-the-floor house beat, Moore (the former lead singer of a screamo band) single-handedly transformed dubstep, and bass music in general, into EDM for headbangers, becoming the genre's most famous —and most hated — figure in the process. 10. Marshall Jefferson, “Move Your Body (The House Music Anthem)” (1986) Marshall Jefferson's name isn't as well-known as that of Frankie Knuckles or Jesse Saunders, but it should be. In addition to having a hand in the production of Phuture's "Acid Tracks," he also played a huge role in shaping the sound of Chicago house with his debut 1986 single, "Move Your Body," the first house record to feature a piano. For the song's infectious vocals, Jefferson enlisted some co-workers from his day job at the post office — including Curtis McClain on the soulful (and frequently sampled) lead. "They said it wasn’t house music because of the piano," Jefferson once wrote. "I thought it was the hottest shit the dancefloor would ever hear, but I have quite the ego." 9. Stardust, “Music Sounds Better With You” (1998) Long before they crossed over to mainstream success with "Get Lucky," Daft Punk were among the most celebrated acts in dance music, churning out massive clubs hits like "Da Funk," "One More Time" and "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." But ironically, it was the Daft Punk side project Stardust — a group made up of Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter, producer Alan Braxe and vocalist Benjamin Diamond — that released the most influential French house track of the late '90s. An irresistibly slinky mix of deep house and disco, "Music Sounds Better With You" topped the dance music charts in numerous countries including the U.S. and remains a touchstone track for all producers of vocal house, French or otherwise.
8. Paperclip People, “Throw” (1994) Even more than Richie Hawtin, Carl Craig is widely regarded as the greatest of Detroit's second wave of techno producers, a group who laid the groundwork 20 years ago for pretty much every subgenre and offshoot of techno still popular today. Released under one of his many aliases, Paperclip People, Craig's 1994 single "Throw" still stands as one of the most perfectly crafted techno tracks of all time: 14 glorious minutes of precision-tuned percussion, bass, keyboards and drifting synth strings, all building to a trippy vocal climax. 7. Inner City, “Big Fun” (1988) "Big Fun" was electronic dance music's first pop moment. Created by Detroit techno godfather Kevin Saunderson and Chicago house singer Paris Grey, the song was a huge hit both in America and overseas, spawning a mini-boom in artists who mixed house beats with pop hooks and R&B vocals: Technotronic, Snap!, Deee-Lite. But beyond its obvious commercial impact, "Big Fun" was also a milestone in the way it mixed a catchy lead vocal and synth hook with what was essentially a techno backing track. Electronic dance music, for better or worse, would never again be a wholly underground phenomenon. 6. Underworld, “Born Slippy .NUXX” (1996) Millions of people heard techno for the first time by way of the Trainspotting soundtrack and its iconic use of Underworld's trippy ".NUXX" version of their 1995 single "Born Slippy." With a juddering, heart-in-your-throat beat and Karl Hyde's stream-of-consciousness ranting, the track perfectly captured both the twitchy energy of the film and the amped-up zeitgeist of mid-'90s rave culture, for which it quickly became the de facto anthem. To this day, its reverb-laden intro is probably the most instantly recognizable synth chord in all of EDM. 5. Second Phase, “Mentasm” (1991) When you hear old-school house and techno heads refer to something called "the Hoover sound," this is what they're talking about. On "Mentasm," American producer Joey Beltram, working under his Second Phase alias, came up with a thick, whooshing synthesizer sound that reminded listeners of a giant vaccum cleaner — hence the Hoover nickname. So many producers began imitating Beltram's Hoover and combining it with ever-faster tempos that it eventually gave rise to entire Hoover-based subgenre of hard techno called gabber. To this day, the Hoover sound turns up in tracks from artists as diverse as Die Antwoord and Rihanna. But rarely is it more deliciously menacing than on Second Phase's furious original.
4. Cybotron, “Clear” (1983) More than 30 years later, the cascading synths and robotic vocals of "Clear" still have the power to mesmerize. Co-produced by Juan Atkins — along with Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May, part of the "Belleville Three" credited with inventing techno — and Richard Davis, "Clear" actually pre-dates Atkins' use of the term "techno" to describe his music. But its repetitive rhythms and alien soundscapes laid the foundation not just for Detroit techno, but for all electronic dance music that followed. 3. Hardrive, “Deep Inside” (1993) New York duo "Little" Louie Vega and Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez are best-known as Masters at Work, but they released this instant classic under another of their aliases, Hardrive. Written by Vega, engineered by another house legend, Erick Morillo, and featuring vocals by Barbara Tucker, "Deep Inside" combined the jazzy, soulful elements of deep house with the more uptempo qualities of NYC club house and U.K. garage to create one of the sexiest, most timeless dance music grooves of all time, in any genre. 2. Orbital, “Chime” (1989) Electronic dance music may have been born in Detroit and Chicago, but only when it jumped the pond to England did it explode into a global phenomenon. Of the songs that soundtracked that explosion, Orbital's "Chime" may be the most iconic. Brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll claim they somehow managed to capture the track's lush sound direct to cassette tape, using two drum machines, a Roland TB-303, a Yamaha DX11 synth, and an Akai sampler on which they sampled "an easy-listening record of my dad’s," Paul later told DJ Mag. To this day, the brothers usually close out their sets with "Chime," to the euphoric glee of fans who, more often than not, probably remember listening to it on their first hit of ecstasy.
1. Rhythim Is Rhythim, “Strings of Life” (1987) What "God Save the Queen" was to punk, or "The Message" was to hip-hop, Derrick May's "Strings of Life" was to electronic dance music: not its point of origin, but a crucial early turning point that revealed the music's full potential and has remained a vital touchstone to all fans and creators in the decades since. After helping invent techno with Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson in the early to mid-'80s, May created the new sound's first anthem with "Strings of Life," a titled suggested by Chicago house DJ Frankie Knuckles. Weirdly, the track has no bass line, but its combination of jangling piano and swooping, almost percussive string samples, at once familiar and futuristic, instantly energized dance floors in Detroit, Chicago, London, Berlin and beyond. To this day, "Strings of Life" is the sound not just of techno but of EDM in general — the sound of pure, unadulterated joy, set to a driving, uptempo beat.
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Andy Hermann has written for L.A. Weekly since 2012 and joined the staff as music editor in 2014. Previously he was the national music editor for Metromix and managing editor for ArtistDirect. His work has also appeared in XLR8R, the Daily Dot, Diffuser.fm, and the Boston Phoenix among others. He lives in Highland Park and still holds out hope for a Talking Heads reunion.