The 100 Greatest Dance Songs

60

ABBA, “Lay All Your Love on Me” (1980)

ABBA made great pop music but they rarely put out a song the hipster could dance to without losing face. The Swedish group’s entire canon, at once corny and exhilarating, is notable for sounding as if it’s being kneaded by the glamorous hands of disco on one side and the sticky fingers of glam-rock on the other. It’s this dreamy, boxed-in sense of in-betweeness that probably explains why ABBA’s music so easily appeals to desperate housewives and the Napoleon Dynamites of the world—theirs is pop music for people living in the closets of their own frustration. Then and now, their lyrics are scarcely extraordinary, but their sound still evokes odd but catching states of confusion. Dancing queens can have the cheery cornball of “Dancing Queen” and “Mama Mia.” I’ll trade them any day for the ominous seductions and ruminations of “Voulez Vous,” the Madonna-hijacked “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” and their fantastic “Lay All Your Love on Me,” the group’s sole U.S. club-chart topper. Sexy and poignant, “Lay All Your Love on Me” is a song about love and regret, made when the group’s dynamic was at its most frayed. Pitch-perfectly grafted into the urgent, slip-and-sliding sounds of Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson’s organ-infused production, the disaffected vocals by Agnetha Fältskog and Frida Lyngstad evoke a sad state of affairs between these former lovers. It’s the group’s take on Bergman’s relationship-on-the-rocks dramedy A Lesson in Love. I swear, if my local church ever played this song during Sunday service, I might just take up Catholicism again. Gonzalez

59

New Order, “Blue Monday” (1983)

How does it feel to be immortalized by electroclash? Probably underwhelming, but no matter. The fact that “Blue Monday” became a staple of the typically boneheaded ’clash DJ is testament to its blatant appeal. “Blue Monday” funnels influences from just about every electronic dance record that led up to its 1983 release (including guidance from “Planet Rock” producer Arthur Baker), achieving timelessness via an obsessive knowledge of history. No wonder it’s the best selling 12” of all time. Juzwiak

58

Cybotron, “Clear” (1983)

No less than the baptism of Detroit techno, Cybotron creators Juan Atkins and Richard Davis’s “Clear” infused the breaking electro sound with a Motor City edge of industrial gloom, closer in spirit to their teutonic Kraftwerkian influences than the conviviality of Bambaataa, Robie, or Whodini. Using little more than 808 trickery and pinched vocal non sequiturs, “Clear” suggests the epic scale of mankind’s troubled relationship with its electronic Frankenstein that lies at the heart of techno’s dark-sided masters of dystopia from Throbbing Gristle to Second Toughest-era Underworld. Henderson

57

Soul II Soul, “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)” (1989)

A U.K. club collective including producer giants Nellee Hooper and Jazzie B, Soul II Soul’s crossover hit “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)” and its smooth, intoxicating blend of Caron Wheeler’s becalmed Sade-meets-Lisa-Stansfield vocals and simmering piano accompaniments was a pop anomaly on either side of the Atlantic. In Britain, the unrushed top-down tempo stood in marked contrast to the Isles’ exploding acid rave scene. In America, we were all reminded of what jazzy fills sounded like when played on an actual piano and not one from those walls of synths keyboardists used to surround themselves with (like Poe’s The Cask of Casio). And, on either side of the pond, the full, round bassiness of the lower end heralded the end of ’80s pop’s decade of treble. We’ve been riding on the low end ever since. Henderson

56

The Flirts, “Passion” (1982)

Bobby Orlando became something of a disco pimp in the time between 1979’s “Disco Sucks” blowout and house music’s takeover. Representing New York, he released an unending stream of hi-NRG records in the early ’80s, which varied wildly in quality. Among his best production work, though, was what he did for the Flirts, a trio of women with an almost constantly rotating lineup. Maybe it’s just that his pimpishness was never more lucid. Certainly, his girls more than held up their end—1982’s “Passion” is a sleazy romp of gushing synths and a bobbing erection (I mean, bassline). The title isn’t trying to twist love with sex, it’s just describing work ethic. Juzwiak

55

Inner City, “Good Life” (1989)

Before techno was “techno” (thanks to Juan Atkins’s sci-fi theorizing and subsequent dubbing), it was known as Detroit house, and before house was house, it was disco. But if distinctions were made to be blurred, consider Kevin Saunderson a supreme smear on the dance music landscape. 1988’s “Good Life” clanked like techno, pumped like house and featured disco diva vocals from his partner in Inner City, Paris Grey. “Let me take you to a place you know you wanna go/It’s a good life,” she belts, creating the clearest picture of dance floor halcyon since Chic sang about 54 and its roller skates, roller skates. The good times emanating from the track landed it on Top 40 stations around the country, giving all involved a tangible taste of the real live good life. Juzwiak

54

Shannon, “Let the Music Play” (1983)

Alongside Madonna’s “Holiday,” D.C.-born Jazz vocalist Brenda Shannon Greene’s “Let the Music Play” helped redefine dance music in the anti-disco early-’80s, setting the stage for the troubled genre for the next decade. Producers Mark Liggett and Chris Barbosa, considered one of the founding fathers of Latin freestyle, merged the then-hip electro-funk sound with Latin rhythms, unwittingly creating the world’s first freestyle song. Unmistakably an ’80s creation, the track evades a precise time-stamp thanks to its futuristic staccato beats, thoughtful production, and the fact that it became a pop radio staple for more than a decade. The song has more lasting power than most of its countless copycats, including Shannon’s own “Give Me Tonight.” Cinquemani

53

Universal Robot Band, “Barely Breaking Even” (1982)

In a pop culture that was emphatically post-disco, a lot of producers had to come up with a variety of methods to disguise the fact that their dance tracks were covertly disco. Punch it up, strip it down, puff out its chest—anything to put roughneck masculinity back into the equation and still make a living out of a murdered musical genre. Sometimes the results were successful: the testosterone rush of Gap Band’s long string of singles between “Steppin’ Out” and “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” gives bluster a good rep. One of the more mysterious strategies was to pump up boogie singles by drizzling a coat of shimmery electronic gloss over the entire song. The result was even gayer than before, even without string sections and high-hat backbeats. One of the brightest of these neon-pink records is Universal Robot Band’s appropriate, perhaps self-referential ode to living paycheck to paycheck (a topic that probably hit pretty close to home for a number of newly passé disco musicians). The Leroy Burgess-penned “Barely Breaking Even” never knows where the money goes [editor’s note: up their noses?], but its aerobic pace and opulently brassy synthesized orchestration belie its financial claims. But for the words, it could’ve been the theme to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Henderson

52

Grace Jones, “Sex Drive” (1993)

Jamaican-born model, singer and performance artist Grace Jones is something of a real-life Thundercat. Her weapons are race, myth, and sexuality, which she used throughout much of her career to essay dynamic responses to phallocentric masculinity, most memorably in two massive club hits—“Pull Up to the Bumper” and “Sex Drive”—that liken her vivacious black physique to that of a car. On the thumping “Sex Drive,” Jones uses her sexual agency to powerfully assert her female and racial identity. She doesn’t exploit the stereotype of the sexual savage so much as she tears it apart. “Impress your friends,” she irreverently growls, challenging the way a white man might, say, wear a black woman to a party on his arm. Perversely propulsive and loaded with meaning, the song is not about whether we actually want to fuck Miss Jones but whether we can get past our hegemonic baggage to actually feel comfortable enough to take a fetish-free ride. Gonzalez

51

Mr. Fingers, “Can You Feel It” (1986)

In the beginning, there was rhythm—the tubular, fluid flow of the 303 bassline, the clicking and tapping of primitive drum machines. But with 1986’s “Can You Feel It,” house went deeper, thanks to Larry Heard (a.k.a. Mr. Fingers), a jazz musician among insects. The Chicago classic, with a looming, pre-ambient melody and sheets of high hats, sounds like the hard rain of God’s tears. The spiritual potential of “Can You Feel It” was underscored in the song’s subsequent incarnations—a gospel-tinged version sung by Robert Owens, a revamp featuring Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and, maybe most famously, the song-as-sermon version featuring Chuck Roberts’s much-sampled rant (“In the beginning, there was Jack and Jack had a groove,” it starts, laying out house’s genesis). But the moral of Roberts’s story—“House is a feeling!”—had already been conveyed by Heard’s original, wordlessly and perfectly. Juzwiak

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