What is EDM? Those on the periphery will tell you it stands for “electronic dance music.” An obvious assertion – yes – but you also have purists that’ll tell you deep house, techno, and anything retro, pop-driven, or dark wave – from synthpop to industrial – don’t fit within this spectrum.
As such, EDM has come to mean a mashup of mainstream house genres – think progressive, big room, future, and tropical, with a smattering of vocal-based deep house – along with trance, dubstep, and some hardstyle.
Additionally, you’ll probably also hear or read that EDM truly emerged sometime in the late 2000s, and anything before this period doesn’t fall within this scope.
So, thinking about what constitutes EDM, we’ve put together 20 of the best tracks you’ve got to hear – along with a few old-school influences – in no particular order.
“Sweet and Sour” – Mike Williams
Released through Musical Freedom, “Sweet and Sour” was initially thought to be a Tiesto single. Yet, the sounds – characterized by a chromatic melody and dissipating drop – introduced a new talent, Dutch DJ Mike Williams.
Williams has since gone onto become one of the definitive future bounce producers with uplifting, swinging, almost marching band-like melodies he initially crafts on piano.
“Put Your Hands up for Detroit” – Fedde Le Grand
Electronic dance music spent the 2000s bubbling underground with robotic yet groovy anthems heavy on the percussive elements. The counterpart to Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction” over that decade was Fedde Le Grand’s “Put Your Hands Up for Detroit.”
The track alludes to techno’s origins while delivering a winding banger that still sounds fresh today and highlights the producer’s full spectrum of talents.
Mainly, he can get you dancing even with just basic hits and transcends both deep and progressive house styles, uniting both mainstream and underground fans in the process.
“Toulouse” – Nicky Romero
Nicky Romero emerged during the producer prodigy phase in the early 2010s, buoyed partially by the viral, Anonymous-referencing video for “Toulouse.”
Romero’s proven the hype nearly a decade later, releasing tracks from pop-house to tech house, exploring his underground groove on side project Monocule, and managing Protocol Records and a radio show of the same name.
It all started in 2012 with “Toulouse,” an effortlessly mash-up-able track that hit like a firecracker yet simultaneously delivers a euphoric slow burn that showcases the producer’s knack for percussive and melodic lines.
“Levels” – Avicii
Swedish house in the early 2010s was unstoppable. But, while Swedish House Mafia’s hits now give off blandly uplifting vibes that often rest on their vocal lines, Avicii’s “Levels” was a different beast.
Tim Bergling could craft the very definition of an earworm that transcended the track’s vocal aspect.
While “Levels” samples Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” halfway through, this element’s only secondary. Rather, Avicii’s ability to switch from on- to off-the-beat rhythms and piano-based melodies makes this one instantly recognizable.
“Wake Me Up” – Avicii
Avicii appears twice on this list for two reasons. He managed to vary his output in a relatively short period of time: Compare “My Feelings for You” and “Levels” with everything on his debut album True, and you’d think you were listening to an entirely different producer.
Back at Ultra 2013, “Wake Me Up” shocked listeners by the sheer fact Bergling mixed country-folk elements with progressive house – and the result far transcended the awkward irony of “Cotton Eye Joe,” the novelty mid-‘90s Eurodance offering from Rednex.
It felt earnest and fresh and ushered in a period of genre mashups that hasn’t quite let up.
“Turn Me Up” – Benny Benassi
The obvious choice for Benny Benassi seems to be “Satisfaction,” which, truth be told, feels like a second-rate “Put Your Hands Up for Detroit” clone.
“Turn Me Up” – off his first full-length album, Pumphonia – reflects another, more ubiquitous side of the producer – the diva-belter track with late ‘00s grit. It brings the talent – there’s no need for a vocoder here – and displays a side of the Italian house powerhouse that disappeared somewhere in the early 2010s.
“Ride on Time” – Black Box
Sampling disputes aside, “Ride on Time” represents the perfect confluence of retro to modern, nodding to the disco era, welcoming the uplifting, pop-heavy character of ‘90s Eurodance, and feeling strangely timeless among the lite-deep house groove that provided an alternative to bombastic progressive somewhere around 2015.
“Axis” – Pet Shop Boys
Purists will say the Pet Shop Boys aren’t EDM – they’re synthpop, its own separate genre.
Yet, off the heels of 2013’s ballad-heavy Elysium came Electric later that year, a dance-heavy, EDM-embracing release that opened with the dance floor-made “Axis,” which showcased Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s uncanny ability to always stay relevant no matter the decade.
“Tremble” – Vicetone
Symphonic EDM might get you thinking about something cheesy, like Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus.” Vicetone’s “Tremble,” on the other hand, gets you envisioning an orchestra performing a dance music track through deep bass played off soprano string melodies.
“Freaks” – Timmy Trumpet
Conservatory-studied, jazz-originating Timmy Trumpet proved with “Freaks” that you don’t only need a keyboard and some software to make an EDM track. Here, the viral-going melody gets performed on a trumpet and transposed via synthesizer to the point the bass rattles.
“Right Here, Right Now” – Fatboy Slim
Many call electronic dance music disposable. The true measurement of a hit is how often it gets sampled or remixed. Fatboy Slim’s trippy, groovy, transporting-you-to-a-‘90s-rave track has proven its longevity in such a fashion – recognizable, worthy on its own, yet flexible for a multitude of iterations.
“Cool” – Le Youth
On the subject of remixes, Le Youth reworks Cassie’s “Me & U,” chopping up its breathy, R&B-lite vibe to deliver something hypnotically upbeat.
“Strobe” – Deadmau5
“Strobe” is perfection at the intersection of trance and tech house – and perhaps Deadmau5’s strongest song to date.
“Strobe” proves that not every EDM track needs a drop – nor does it need to rely on the endless, pendulum-like groove and handclaps of the underground. Rather, “Strobe” exemplifies mastery of the slow build that grabs your attention and keeps you transfixed.
“Hideaway” – Kiesza
Before artists like Shane Codd started reviving the lighter, tropical mid-2010s deep house, a slew of European producers backed away from the drop-heavy structure of progressive and Big Room – Gorgon City, Duke Dumont, Clean Bandit, and Route 94, to name a few.
In hindsight, much of it felt like hipsters telling us what deep house should sound like while processing it through a pop filter.
“Hideaway” seems more earnest. Yes, the groovy beat and keyboards are there, but the track also delivers structure and form. It stays in your head – rather than quickly transform into another melody.
“Bangarang” – Skrillex
The Brits had been doing dubstep for a few years – itself growing out of grime and drum ‘n’ bass – before Skrillex got listeners on this side of the pond going “WTF?”
Although the emo guitarist turned producer has since shown his versatility through Jack U with Diplo and his more recent output, “Bangarang” delivers the slow, syrupy pace interrupted by cacophony and intentional unevenness that we still associate with American dubstep.
“Adagio for Strings” – Tiesto
These days, it’s easy to hate on Tiesto. Yet, “Adagio for Strings” shows that you can carefully, almost delicately and without irony, sample lesser-known classical music for the dance floor.
The result isn’t bombastic and, over 15 years ago, introduced mainstream listeners to the enthralling, deliberately repetitive beauty of trance music.
“Big Fun” – Inner City
The title says it all. While purists don’t seem to like grouping the old-school classics in with the progressive and future house hits of the past decade, “Big Fun” manages to appeal to all tastes – modern, nostalgic, and anyone just wanting to find their groove.
“Bunnydance” – Oliver Heldens
On the topic of “mainstream” deep house, you’ll have some saying Tchami championed its status, and others pointing to Oliver Heldens.
But, while Tchami’s church concept might seem like he’s taking himself too seriously, Heldens’ irreverence – almost deliberate – makes everyone feel the beat and takes the too-cool-for-this attitude out of modern-day, hipster-driven deep house.
“Boomerang” – Brooks x Martin Garrix
Brooks is that Dutch DJ who’s always about to break through but has yet to make an impact on the DJ Mag 100 listing. GRX is Martin Garrix attempting to do something melodic yet techy with a circular format that, true to the title, makes you want to listen to “Boomerang” again and again.
“I’m Not Alone” – Calvin Harris
On this side of the Atlantic, we associate Calvin Harris’s debut with his Rihanna collaboration, “We Found Love.” Prior to this massive introduction, he released two albums he fully produced and sang on, blending synthpop, trance, and house elements.
“I’m Not Alone” represents this early apex with soaring synths, a nearly drop-less structure, and a trance-like repetition that engages rather than lulls you into a hypnotic state.
Ivan Yaskey is a Philly-born EDM and synthpop enthusiast and interviewer who recently relocated to beautiful Boston, MA.