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100 Greatest Dance Songs

Love to Love You Baby10. Donna Summer, "Love to Love You Baby" (1975). Cymbals brush against the back of her neck as she lifts her legs in the air. A kick drum works its way down her back, around and over to her stomach as her legs begin to part. Guided by liquefied bass riffs, her hands discard a pair of white panties. Her fingers tickle her tender nipples, dancing around the lower part of her breasts before making their way down to her abdomen toward the space between her legs. Steered by wispy synths, the fingers reach inside, spreading apart her seemingly infinite folds. The deeper they delve, the deeper the drum kicks. She works the area, nimbly and considerably, before climaxing to a stream of funky horns, pentatonic bass, horny strings and wah-wah guitar strokes. Her spent fingers withdraw to the sound of a piano, but she isn't done yet—the kick drum resumes and the ritual begins again. Donna's twat-twiddling may have only been a tongue-in-cheek recording session lark, but "Love to Love You Baby" has probably loosened up more orifices in the last 30 years than Bel Ami's entire back catalogue. EG

Hey Mr. DJ9. Zhané, "Hey Mr. DJ" (1993). The fusion of distaff-centric new jack production with stately-bumping club sensibilities practically ran the charts in the first three or four years of the '90s (officially ending the moment that TLC's stripped-down "Waterfalls" turned the four-four kick into yesterday's sound). Playlists were peppered with urban rhinestones like Soul II Soul's "Back to Life," Jade's "Every Day of the Week" and "Don't Walk Away," Karyn White's "Romantic," SWV's "I'm So Into You," Mary J. Blige's "Real Love"—not to mention the really creamy uptempo hybrids that added a touch of Latin house and romper-room disco spangle into the mix like Seduction's "Two to Make It Right" and Stacy Earl's criminally forgotten "Love Me All Up." Still, no one nailed the formula quite like Zhané did with this velvet midnight blue floor-filler. As the liberal sample from Michael Wycoff's "Looking Up at You" suggests, the presence of Zhané and their sisters on pop radio airwaves heralded pure disco's undeniable return to form. Wasting no time on exposition, "Hey Mr. DJ" hits the needle spinning (giving the impression you're walking in on a song that's already been playing for hours) and doesn't deviate from its slack jack groove or its cool keyboard paradiddles long enough for you to exhale. EH

Don't Leave Me This Way8. Thelma Houston, "Don't Leave Me This Way" (1976). The idea to record a disco version of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes's "Don't Leave Me This Way" first occurred to producer Hal Davis after he heard the song at a party while in the midst of producing singer Thelma Houston's third album Any Way You Like It. From the singer's first gospel-hued hums to the desperate first verse ("I can't survive/I can't stay alive without your love/Oh, baby, don't leave me this way/I can't exist") and unashamedly wanton chorus, the song transcends its archetypical disco strings and pulsating beat to become one of the most soulful disco songs ever. After putting on a strong face and dancing all night to anthems like "I Will Survive," "Don't Leave Me This Way" is the subtle, pained plea you listen to privately on your way home to an empty bed. SC

French Kiss7. Lil' Louis, "French Kiss" (1987). By the time of the 1987 release of "French Kiss," Chicago's Marvin Louis Burns (a.k.a. the Lil one) had been DJing for over 10 years. It's safe to say that he knew just how masochistic a song choice "French Kiss" would be, as it threatened to bring any brave DJ's set to a crash: "French Kiss" is a moaning, sex-as-house track that audaciously and amazingly slows down and then stops altogether. It builds again, chugging back to its initial speed until it fades brighter than ever in post-orgasmic glow. RJ

There But for the Grace of God Go I6. Machine, "There But for the Grace of God Go I" (1979). Story songs are rare in disco. At best there are tracks like Patrick Juvet's subtly heartbreaking "I Love America," where most of the backstory is supplied by the listener (to wit: gay immigrant comes to America and falls in love with the disco scene's social melting pot and pansexual freedom, unaware that not too long after the song ends lurks not only the death of disco but also the death of a disproportionate number of gays to AIDS). Not so with half-hit wonder Machine's "There But for the Grace of God Go I," a dark and pessimistic parable that spits social criticism along with its bitter rhythm guitar riffs and maddening "doo-doo-doo" refrains to the delight of closet dance freak rockists everywhere. So the song goes, a pair of overbearing Latino parents try to protect their bouncing baby girl from the real world, moving away from the Bronx to a place where they can raise their daughter, an environment with "no blacks, no Jews and no gays." And no heritage. By denying their daughter her rightful knowledge of her own roots (denying her of even rock n' roll records), Carlos and Carmen Vidal eventually find themselves the parents of a dissolute, neurotic, fat little teenage runaway. Almost too fast and chaotic to actually dance to, and practically dripping with ugly synthesizer lines that sound more like abortions, "Grace of God" is dance culture's Scared Straight. And as far as hopelessly nihilistic conclusions go, few songs can match the grim wit of Machine's isolationist punchline: "Too much love is worse than none at all." EH

A Deeper Love5. Clivillés & Cole, "A Deeper Love" (1991). Shortly after Robert Clivillés and David Cole formed their prefab outfit C+C Music Factory and scored major hits with "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)," "Here We Go," and "Things That Make You Go Hmmmm," songs which infectiously cheesed up the duo's already accessible pop-house sound for the masses, they helped invigorate Aretha Franklin's career for all of four-and-a-half minutes with a cover of their own "A Deeper Love." Aretha's big-throated sister-act rendition has its fans, but it isn't the real deal. For that you'd have to turn to the original, featuring Deborah Cooper on vocals. The former Change frontwoman takes the song to church on the Club Mix but takes it to the dance floor on the Underground Mix, which features much of the same beeps, scratches and horns but dares to put the church's organ on equal footing with Cooper. The woman's vocal goes in some incredibly fierce directions on the 12-minute Club Mix (it's so towering and soulful people have understandably mistaken the voice for that of Martha Wash's, which only deepens the song's cred), but the condensed Underground Mix evokes an awesome vogue war. Here, a flurry of synthesized beeps attacks the song toward the end, threatening to wring out its soul, but Cooper dashes our fears with a series of coyly combative la-da-de-da-da-da-das, banishing the noise while a sampled Jomanda belts, "I need a rhythm." Real rhythm, that is, and the rest of the song grants that wish. EG

Love Hangover4. Diana Ross, "Love Hangover" (1976). Disco legend has it that producer Hal Davis and Motown founder Berry Gordy convinced a reluctant Diana Ross to record this dance classic with the help of some disco lighting and a few shots of Remy Martin. Heavy on gushy metaphors and, perhaps by default, light on the kind of disco-diva belting that had become par for the course (Ross's uncharacteristically under-cranked, low-diaphragmed vocal says there really are some valleys low enough), "Love Hangover" was Ross and Davis's own "Love to Love You Baby," a breathy, lust-filled, sweat-inducing ode to disco gluttony and the dance floor orgasm: Those first few langorous, descending electric piano chords perfectly captured the sexy, desperate, cocaine-fueled listlessness of the era. SC

Vogue3. Madonna, "Vogue" (1990). Is it a subversive gesture—an "I told you" of sorts—that "Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?" follows "Is Paris Burning?" in bell hooks's 1992 collection of essays Black Looks: Race and Representation? hooks may or may not understand Madonna but she definitely understood the sham of voguing. She wrote: "In many ways [Paris Is Burning] was a graphic documentary portrait of the way in which colonized black people (in this case black gay brothers, some of whom were drag queens) worship at the throne of whiteness, even when such worship demands that we live in perpetual self-hate, steal, lie, go hungry, and even die in its pursuit." hooks's problem with Jennie Livingston and Madonna is the same: their "interest in, and appropriation of, black culture as yet another sign of their radical chic." For hooks, Armond White, or any person of color who struggles not to be seduced away from their race by what hooks describes as a "powerful colonizing whiteness," Madonna's appropriation of nonwhiteness isn't appreciative so much as fixative and fetishistic (see videos for "Secret" and "La Isla Bonita"). "I have the same goal I've had ever since I was a girl. I want to rule the world," Madonna once said. This bald-faced blond ambition helped her achieve worldwide pop domination but it's also what's earned her a legion of naysayers. Madonna has repeatedly mined the sacred turf of nonwhite culture for trends to incorporate into the spectacle of her perpetual reinvention. But let's give the bitch credit where credit is due. Power-hungry as she may be (or was, as her recent dance floor confessions would have us believe), Madonna is not stupid. "Vogue" may not be the greatest dance song of all time, but it's certainly the chintziest and brainiest of all. I'd argue that it understands the culture that spawned the ritualized play of voguing more critically than Paris Is Burning, throwing shade at Livingston by liberally replicating the very same part of MFSB's "Love Is the Message" that appears in the film. At the very least, the song nails the complicated and contradictory messages of voguing. hooks says, "Livingston does not oppose the way hegemonic whiteness 'represents' blackness, but rather assumes an imperial overseeing position that is in no way progressive or counter-hegemonic." She might say the same thing about Madonna's song and video, which White decried in The City Sun in 1990 for the way "Madonna and her voguers are vamping for class approval." But that's exactly why voguers "pose": for social acceptance. "It makes no difference if you're black or white," belts Madonna; one could say she recognizes the Latino roots of voguing ignored by White and hooks. Madonna's dance floor, like the arena of the drag ball, has the atmosphere of a sports event, a place of social communion. The thrill of voguing for Black and Latino queens is trying to pass for white. Madonna understands this "racial pathology," to quote White, as a form of "going with the flow" compliance. "Beauty is where you find it," she sings, counteracting the self-denying fantasy voguing encourages—the song could be a precursor to Celeda's "Be Yourself." Madonna may find beauty in the Hollywood icons of the past but she understands the feelings of negation their stardom often disguised. Shep Pettibone, a white boy whose roots were in house and hip-hop, helps stress this idea with his gussied-up house beats; he and Madonna recognize voguing for the artifice that it is. This is a point White doesn't get when he criticizes Madonna's white-fixated roll-call of stars, forgetting that Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Cansino and that her superstar status in white-bread Hollywood was predicated on her ability to give good face. EG

Groove Is in the Heart2. Deee-Lite, "Groove Is in the Heart" (1990). According to Eric Cartman, the hippie is extremely resilient. Case in point: When Deee-Lite blasted into the musicsphere in the early '90s, many mistook the group for nostalgia-wanking clowns trying to revitalize the passive flower-children ethos and artifice their parents embraced in the '60s and '70s ("We are trying to make contact," they'd go on to say on their ironic "I.F.O." a couple of years later, cheekily toying with those presumptions), which trivialized the truly forward-thinking momentum of their music. Straight from the halls of New York City's bygone super clubs to God's ears, Deee-Lite's bohemian philosophy imagined the denizens of the global village collectively bopping their heads to a kaleidoscopic fusion of funkadelic house beats, giddy samples, back-to-nature rhythms and a stream of coy lyrics with big-themed ambitions. This was dance music in a language everyone could understand. No song delivered the group's world-conscious Word as colorfully and open-heartedly as "Groove Is in the Heart," which flew up the Billboard charts while goosing stuffed shirts. For as long as Deee-Lite was popular, even if it was only for 15 minutes, the world (and music scene) seemed like a much happier place. EG

I Feel Love1. Donna Summer, "I Feel Love" (1977). In its original sequencing on Donna Summer's unspeakably campy I Remember Yesterday, "I Feel Love" is merely the "but our story doesn't end here" epilogue to a corny, disco-fried Time-Life tour through modern pop music, beginning with the title track's bo-do-dee-oh nod to 1940s doo-wop and ending with the chocolate/vanilla '70s swirl of "Black Lady" and "Can't We Just Sit Down." But the unspoken addendum to that latter song's request might as well have been "better buckle up," because Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte's futuristic vistavision album coda single-handedly took pop music into the electronic age. No longer would synthesizers remain the intellectual property of prog-classical geeks. And, separated from its LP context and taken as a Top 10 single, it didn't just suggest the future, it was the future. Cooing ascending couplets of an almost banal ecstasy, Summer's breathy vocals still dwelled in the stratosphere of her own manufactured sensation. In his liner notes to Rhino's The Disco Years compilation, Ken Barnes memorably chided, "She'd be lucky to feel a meteorite collision," but he must have missed her near operatic backing vocals on the chorus. Moroder's dreamy showers of synthesized good vibes, his intransigent yet understated metronomic beats, and those immortal octave-jumping bass pulsations all insisted that, yes, you could indeed finesse rich, emotional alternate universes from binary code and silicon chips. Artists like Kraftwerk were working similar territory concurrently, but their electronic experimentalism was academicism first, music second. In merging soulful dance music with filters, knobs and sequence-programming, Moroder unwittingly and presciently provided dance music with its own personal underground railroad that became its only salvation following the highly publicized extermination of disco in 1979 (with the Comiskey Park disco record bonfire serving as the movement's Night of the Long Knives). While the straight-white-male powers that be stomped on Bee Gees and Village People records, the shards of dance music proliferated into countless niche genres thanks to the electro-pop synergy of Moroder's vision, and no musical genre in the last three decades has remained untouched by the neon-lit legacy of "I Feel Love." EH

 

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