The 100 Greatest Dance Songs


Teena Marie, “Behind the Groove” (1980)

Though she was an artist in her own right apart from her unfair reputation as the most high-profile, most musically gifted member of the Rick James harem, Teena Marie’s self-written R&B smash “Behind the Groove” betrays Marie’s tutelage under the Motown funk sultan. The rattling, snapping backbeats, the aggressive popping bass, and the aphrodisiac deflection of horny energy onto the abused keys of a severely thrashed piano are all in James’s debt. Teena Marie’s shortlist of hit singles ranges widely, and almost no other artists discussed for this list generated as many viable candidates (certainly no artists we had slated for a single slot, anyway), from the double-time disco of “Square Biz” to the proto-Saved By the Bell pop of “Lovergirl.” “Behind the Groove” simply stands in for all the Rick James songs we didn’t even consider. Now who’s in whose shadow? Henderson


Janet Jackson, “The Pleasure Principle” (1986)

It’s human instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain, but Freud argued that the matured ego “no longer lets itself be governed by the pleasure principle, but obeys the reality principle,” or, more simply, defers said pleasure. Janet Jackson certainly followed this paradigm in her musical career, delaying her sexual satisfaction until the very end of her first two blockbuster albums and not fully submitting to it until 1993’s janet. While the title track of her 1986 breakthrough Control found the singer taking the reigns of her professional life, the album’s final single, “The Pleasure Principle,” found her taking control of a personal relationship by refusing to settle for loveless materialism: “What I thought was happiness was only part time bliss,” an all-grown-up Janet sings. Written and produced by one-time Prince keyboardist and Jam & Lewis cohort Monte Moir, the entire song parallels a fleeting love affair with a ride in a limousine, while the synths bump like busted shock absorbers and the electric guitar screeches like rubber on pavement. Janet (vis-à-vis Moir) invokes “Big Yellow Taxi,” a song she would more blatantly call on for 1997’s “Got ’Til It’s Gone,” while Moir, Jam and Lewis pave over every soul tradition to put up a clanking, whirring, smashing industrial park. Cinquemani


Debbie Deb, “When I Hear Music” (1983)

Discovered at a Miami record store by electro producer/drug dealer Pretty Tony, 16-year-old Debbie Deb was the voice and lyric-writer behind the high-tech “When I Hear Music,” one of the biggest ’80s freestyle dance songs (the genre is allegedly named after Pretty Tony’s group of the same name). Early freestyle only had hints of the full-bodied rhythms and melodies of Latin music, and “When I Hear Music” is no exception. Instead, the track is heavily influenced by electro, featuring robotic vocals and strict, syncopated rhythms inspired by Afrika Bambaataa’s seminal “Planet Rock.” Debbie Deb and Pretty Tony reprised their union with the sparse, similarly electro-sounding but less popular follow-up “Lookout Weekend.” Cinquemani


Lime, “Babe, We’re Gonna Love Tonight” (1982)

The hi-NRG “Babe, We’re Gonna Love Tonight” is all tease. Its infectious intro melody suggests a na-na-na-na-na-na schoolyard taunt, and every subsequent beat ladled on top evokes a teasing tickle or poke. With her giddy, Mini-Pinkerton-esque vocal, Joy Dorris gets to play out a shy creature pulling away from busy hands. It sounds ridiculous but it seems like the only reasonable response to Chris Marsh’s at once earnest but disconcerting bullfrog-in-the-throat come-ons. Bonus points for being the song to soundtrack an unusually sexy Mariah Carey’s booty-shaking first scene in Glitter. Gonzalez


Extra T’s, “E.T. Boogie” (1982)

Rumor has it “E.T. Boogie” was sued out of circulation by Steven Spielberg. I now question the veracity of this rumor (which I fully admit I only heard once from a DJ on a retro show and have subsequently taken as truth ever since), especially given that the strongest evidence in favor of this theory is the fact that there is a fully-instrumental version of this electro-boogie cash-in. But, it turns out, this is just the B-side of the original 12” version, spotted with the supposedly copyright-infringing sporadic interjections from a vocoderized imitation of Spielberg’s beer-drinking alien hero: “E.T. phone home” and “Ouch!” I know, it sounds about as appealing as those early-’90s dance parodies featuring Bart Simpson or Forrest Gump. But the clunky-chunky dance funk of “E.T. Boogie” and its fabulously sloppy, held-together-by-paper-clips 808 beats are the real thing. (Busta Rhymes sampled the track on “Dangerous.”) The close-but-no-spliff encounter of the camp kind is just icing. Henderson


The Bucketheads, “The Bomb (These Sounds Fall Into My Mind)” (1995)

Masters at Work began their long career in house music producing spare, techy tracks with miles of open space between each of their scant layers of drum programming. But as their moniker reached pop-cultural middle age-dom, they went all analog-crazy on our asses. A lot of clubheads have written off just about anything “Little” Louis Vega and Kenny “Dope” have produced since 1995, calling their attempts to give the middlebrow likes of Tito Puente and George Benson and Luther Vandross street cred a waste of resources. Tough shit. The truth is that the four tracks that constitute the house-inflected portion of Nuyorican Soul (first and foremost Jocelyn Brown’s fiery “It’s Alright, I Feel It!”) are all high points of Latin-fusion house. And even if they softened their beats and flattened out their sound, their rhythmic sophistication was still unparalleled. The Nuyorican sessions represent their most sustained post-tech effort, but their biggest single unplugged-era hit was “The Bomb! (These Sounds Fall Into My Mind),” a Chicago-sampling jaunt on the caboose of the Quad City DJs’s train that brought disco revivalism to the world of jock jams. Henderson


Yaz, “Situation” (1982)

Vince Clarke, the fairy godfather of dance music, began his illustrious career of reinvention as a member of Depeche Mode and today pounds out the synths for Erasure. In between outfits, he and former Screaming Abdabs member Alison Moyet created Yaz, the short-lived but successful electro-pop group whose album Upstairs at Eric’s remains surprisingly fresh for a 23-year-old relic. For “Situation,” Clarke dipped Moyet’s soulful vocal into a dense sea of prickly synths, chants and iconic laughter, creating a wave of ambi-sexual heat and here-there-and-everywhere momentum that continues to cast a shadow over today’s bleak dance music landscape. They don’t make them like this anymore—and they never will again. Gonzalez


Kylie Minogue, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” (2001)

Some songs have a way of worming themselves into your head and wrapping their long, synthetic tentacles around your brain. Co-penned by former dance-pop songstress Cathy Dennis, Kylie Minogue’s aptly-titled, unabashedly cheeky “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” is one of those songs, invading brains in almost every capitalist society in the world and becoming the Australian singer’s first U.S. hit in over a decade. For added infectivity, the track was remixed into a mash-up with New Order’s “Blue Monday” for Minogue’s live stage show; the mutation, titled “Can’t Get Blue Monday Out of My Head,” gave the song new life in clubs around the world. Cinquemani


Eighth Wonder, “I’m Not Scared” (1988)

Hot off the success of their hit single “West End Girls,” the Pet Shop Boys were commissioned to write a song for U.K. actress Patsy Kensit and her dance-pop group Eighth Wonder. “I’m Not Scared” is unmistakably a Lowe/Tennant composition, with sharp staccato synth lines, a fluctuating bassline, histrionic lyrics ending in curly, figurative question marks (“Tonight the streets are full of actors/I don’t know why…Tonight I fought and made my mind up/I know it’s right”), and—on the extended Disco Version—dramatic string stabs. On this side of the pond, Eighth Wonder’s biggest hit was 1988’s “Cross My Heart,” which, while it holds its own alongside the best of late-’80s pop, doesn’t have the epic edge of “I’m Not Scared.” The Pet Shop Boys went on to release their own version of the song on their album Introspective, but we prefer this one—Kensit’s broken French and all. Cinquemani


Tom Tom Club, “Genius of Love” (1981)

“What cha gonna do when you get out of jail?” “I’m gonna have some fun!” The opening lines of Tom Tom Club’s toss-off “Genius of Love” are worth isolating for being among the most bizarre calls to the dance floor. But then the entire TV Party-era song is blissfully, petulantly off its rocker: a disjointed, stream-of-consciousness smoke signal from a lovesick club girl tearing her ears away from Bootsy Collins (and her nose away from the white lines) just long enough to ask if anyone’s seen her “genius of love” boyfriend lately. Former Talking Heads bandmates Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (and a disparate cast of Caribbean musicians, including the same “Sly and Robbie” mentioned in the lyrics, borrowed from Grace Jones) didn’t seem to actually write the song so much as channel its juicy/sweet guitar-driven energy into a compact diorama of the disco-friendly vitality of New York new wave. That which borrows is, in turn, borrowed from, and “Genius of Love” became a charter samplers’ paradise, showing up in songs by artists as diverse as GrandMaster Flash and Mariah Carey. Henderson