It's hard to boil down the year in electronic dance music to just 10 tracks. There are numerous genres (house, techno, EDM, etc.) and sub-genres (funky, hardstyle, deep house, etc.), and producing a banging track has never been easier for a new generation of talented up-and-comers who grew up with access to computers and high-speed Internet. (The members of one act featured below — Disclosure — still live with their parents.) We haven't come close to hearing five percent of the dance songs released in 2012 (and that may be generous). But we sure did listen a lot — in clubs, warehouses, festivals, but mostly at our desks — and we thought, why not pass on a few of our favorites.
Here's how we determined what to include: The first rule was it had to make us want to dance. There's lots of great electronic music that's aimed somewhere other than the dance floor. We're into that stuff, but in the interest of comparing apples to apples, we stuck with dance music. To make the list, a song had to make us want to step away from the wall and get down. Second, we both had to love the track. No pet projects allowed. Third, we wanted to provide a sampler of many of the different styles — garage, techno, house and bass music — that made a mark in 2012.
If you're new to electronic dance music, we hope you find something stimulating here. If you're already a fan, tell us about your favorite tracks.
"Hallelujah Anyway" (Larse Vocal Mix)
Churches and clubs often provide similar experiences, albeit to very different congregations. The dance floor has the potential to be a communal, even spiritual place, under the right circumstances. But Larse's combination of gospel and deep house music? I'm not sure even God saw that coming. The German DJ — who had a huge 2012 outside of this hit — takes Candi Staton's paean to perseverance and dresses it up in synths, high-hats, kick drums and just the hint of reverb. She sounds so natural in this setting, I wouldn't be surprised to see the gospel-turned-soul-turned-disco-turned-gospel vocalist reinvent herself one more time.
CATZ 'N DOGZ
"They Frontin'" (feat. Monty Luke)
Played over laptop speakers, "They Frontin" sounds pretty good. It features a catchy vocal tailor-made for dance moves, bold synth leads, rising and falling atmospherics and easy-going hi-hat section. When heard on a proper sound system, this thing is a beast. There's a sub-bass that occasionally drops into the mix, injecting all of the song's pieces with a rattling sense of urgency. I heard it again and again in sets this year, and every time that bass rolled through it spun the dance floor into a tizzy.
All of the songs we're celebrating on this list are designed to move your body. "Thang" sets its sights on something a little more specific: your hips. Armed with little more than a sparse garage rhythm, Chunky — a popular MC in Britain but a rookie producer — expertly deploys one of my favorite samples of the year, an aroused, desperate plea to "put that thang on me." The rest of the track is rather bare bones — mostly snares and bass — but with that line stuck in your head and a few sporadic "ooh oooooh"s, you don't really need anything else.
"Control" (feat. Ria Richie) (Joe Goddard Remix)
British bros Guy and Howard Lawrence are in a good spot. Just 21 and 18 years old, respectively, the dance producers have been chosen by the powers that be to reshape mainstream pop. And not without reason: Their glossy take on garage can be a thing of beauty. But while they're at the head of the class, they're still learning, and on this remix of their hit "Disclosure," Hot Chip producer Joe Goddard is in full-on professor mode. The flitting subs of the original grow teeth and claws, dark electro synths pile on the drama, and Goddard re-arranges the song around vocalist Ria Ritchie's staccato scream, "Let. Me. Catch. My. Breath." Sorry, Ria, no dice.
"All That Matters" (Instrumental)
If there was ever a soundtrack for a blazing red sun slowly setting behind the ocean, it's Kolsch's "All That Matters." And yes, I'm aware of how cheesy I sound, but that's the magic of this song — it reduces you to a smile staring into mid-air. Eight bars of chord-changing fairy dust get the rinse-and-repeat treatment over the course of nine minutes as Danish producer Rune Reilly Křlsch gently builds a series of Novocain crescendos. When the track finally winds down and all that remains of "All That Matters" are elysian embers, the spent feeling of serenity almost calls for a cigarette.
MAYA JANE COLES
Few dance floor producers won the amount of attention that Maya Jane Coles did this year. And for good reason: The 24 year old Londoner churns out slow-burning, sexy house music that shows the grit of a seasoned veteran. "Not Listening," which shares a name with the expertly-crafted DJ Kicks mix that she released in April, bellows with hollow low end and barks with soulful vocal snippets. It rides the kind of groove that Coles has a knack for striking, wrought with subtle complexity and a healthy dose of charm.
"The Tresor Track"
Named after the legendary German techno label that put it out, "The Tresor Track" is a sleek, modern take on classic techno. Its creator, Motor City veteran Mike Huckaby, came up producing deep house and techno in the mid-'90s, and has enjoyed a resurgence of success due to his consistently fresh interpretations of Detroit dance music. Here, he pans chords left to right across a crisp, round bass kick set at rapid 130 beats per minute. Creeping in and out of the mix are cymbals, crashes, and a soft bass and clap. The song is rigid in its disciplined pulse, and capable of sending dancers into a frenzy.
"Ghetto Kraviz" (Amine Edge Edit)
Amine Edge's simple take on "Ghetto Kraviz" does everything a good edit should; it takes a song that works in any context and beefs it up for the club. Russian musician Nina Kraviz's superb debut album is a wild ride around the edges of a dance floor and the Amine Edge edit lengthens one of its most infectious cuts with a healthy floor of undertones. As Kraviz's looped vocals ride the drum kick, swinging percussion and spastic electronics provide unrelenting movement. It's a subtle augmentation, executed with the care that the original deserves.
And now we've come to the "next-level" portion of our list. TJ Hertz is a software developer by day at Native Instruments, one of the leading audio production companies in the world, so it makes sense that his own techno productions as Objekt feel like beta versions of the next big thing. "Porcupine" is anchored by a stop-start machine-gun rhythm that instantly gets stuck in your head and when the booming bass kicks in, the blend of tempo, precision and bombast is like whoa. There are lots of great producers operating on the cutting edge of techno and house, but I'm not sure anyone else is quite as deceptively intricate as Objekt.
"Trap S—- V5"
The latest term being used to describe the constantly evolving sounds of bass music is Trap, a hip-hop/electronic hybrid that pulls its name from the lexicon of Southern rappers. A small handful of dance music producers are making these minimal, bassy beats; among the most exciting is UZ. Nobody is sure who UZ is, but the artist creates sparsely crafted, deftly executed mayhem. The dark sub-basses and cryptic chimes that drive V5 are chilling under samples of gunfire. The cut bursts at the seams with raw energy, teetering between overwhelming power and restraint.