There was no getting away from EDM in 2012. While the three-letter hashtag has certainly caused buzz among radio stations and indie blogosphere alike, it’s been a big year for dance on and off of the pop charts. Regional styles like footwork, juke, and Jersey club went through genre-bending booms, electronic trap instrumentals filtered their way into the rap charts and warehouse clubs, dubstep visited Cuba and Taylor Swift, and house stalwarts kept right on chugging along. We revisited every nook and cranny of the year in dance music and pulled together our 30 favorite tracks.
30. Calvin Harris Ft. Ne-Yo – “Let’s Go”
2012 was the year that EDM took over the pop charts, and though Rihanna will always be his greatest muse, Calvin Harris still hit big with Ne-Yo’s party anthem “Let’s Go.” Big, bright trance-synth builds with laser-like blips and bleeps, upbeat clap-tracks, and a lovable R&B singer on the hook make this one of the better dance-crossover songs to make it onto the Billboard Top 10.
29. Baauer – “Harlem Shake”
Throwing a lion’s growl in on the drop is the most brilliant thing that Bauuer could have done for this track. Right when it seemed like bloated, pitchy synth melodies were played out to exhaustion by SoundCloud moombahton enthusiasts, the 19-year-old took his own maddeningly catchy rhythm, paired it with tightly wound snare rolls and sauntering kick-drum to make one of the earliest and biggest “trap” trend tracks of the year.
28. Joy Orbison, Bodikka, and Pearson Sound – “Faint”
Possibly the strangest of the Joy Orbison and Boddika collaborations, “Faint” is as frustrating as it is captivating. There’s no hook, no drop, no melodic structure. There is, however, insanely addictive vocal repetitions — “I begin to go weak” — and a thrusting, minimal bassline to chug this train along before it drops off a cliff into a pile of noise.
27. Storm Queen – “Let’s Make Mistakes”
Following 2011′s “It Goes On,” Storm Queen’s “Let’s Make Mistakes” expertly combines the sultry, throaty vocals of Damon Scott with Morgan Geist’s slinky, smooth production yet again. The latter’s hi-hat runs and touch of acid-house grit in the snares make what would be a hands-in-the-air house song into a tense, sweltry ride.
26. Major Lazer Ft. Partysquad – “Original Don” (Flosstradamus Remix)
The best parts about “Original Don” are the unexpected ones. Soft, cushioned horns that unfold into the cold slant of hardstyle? OK! On the official remix of the track, Flosstradamus gives the song some extra swing, smoothing the harder edges of the first break with extra paddings of bass before unleashing into their own spurt of skirmish static.
25. KW Griff – “Bring In The Katz” Ft. Porkchop
It was hard to justify putting this track on our list considering “Bring In The Katz” has been a Baltimore Club staple for years. That said, the song went unsigned and never saw an official release until UK-based label Night Slugs picked it up for their Club Constructions series. The release includes a great dub by labelhead L-Vis 1990 but we have to celebrate the original: Baltimore breaks, hard hand claps, and the always-boisterous Porkchop grunting his “Ohs” and “Ahs” to keep you on your feet.
24. Swedish House Mafia – “Don’t You Worry Child” Ft. John Martin
This is perhaps the year’s strongest testament to EDM festival-fueled vanity in 2012. Last June the wildly popular superstar trio announced that their summer would be their last as Swedish House Mafia, instantly priming “Don’t You Worry Child” to be released as some sort of one-last-hurrah of a consolation prize. Despite the vaguely self-aggrandizing lyrical sentiment delivered within, the song uplifts with a light keyboard melody, big bursts of arena-sized trance synths, and wonderfully cheesy sing-along chorus. No-fuss EDM pop with a Grammy nomination for Best Electronic Dance Release to top it off.
23. Wiley – “I’m Skanking” (2 Bears Remix)
Despite their own release early in the year, house production duo 2 Bears (Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard and friend Raf Rundell) showcased their talents best when remixing others. This funkified remix of grime king Wiley’s “I’m Skanking” is their greatest effort and turns the MC’s countdown hook into a sexy snare-driven workout.
22. Mala – “Changuito”
Digital Mystik Mala’s hesitant contribution to Gilles Peterson’s Havana Cultura initiative made for one of the year’s best dance albums, reassuring dubstep purists that the genre’s explosion of popularity still left room for creativity. In an album full of pan-African drums, clave rhythms, and regional vocalists, the quick-stepping percussion of “Changuito” (played by the famous musician by the same name) was a tension-filled album highlight. Rumbling bass, crisp claps, and a sinister interlude of muted trumpets make for a creepy and thrilling four-minute adventure.
21. Kendrick Lamar – “Swimming Pools (Drank)” (DJ Big O Remix)
Young Jersey Club producer takes Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools” and drowns the rapper in his own “drank.” The insistent snares stay, “drank” is chopped and screwed every which way, and the bass turns into a footwork-inspired club beat. Grimy, warehouse party gold.
20. Maya Jane Coles – “Not Listening”
Watch out for this starlet in 2013. Her greatest talent is seamlessly integrating the many faces of London’s dance scene. She mixes garage, the uplifting vocals of deep house, the sun-bathed glow of progressive house, and her own heavy dose of new indie flair.
19. Burial – “Kindred”
If the apocalypse is truly upon us, Burial is the person to soundtrack the thing. The title track from his Kindred EP is the closest to classic Burial-handled UK garage. Ghostly, lovelorn vocals hide amid static and rumbling basslines as a tinny clattering of two-step propels the track forward to an uncertain future. Devastatingly gorgeous and perfectly understated.
18. Traxman – “Blow Yo Shit” (Lenkemz Remix)
This rework of Chicago footwork master Traxman’s “Blow Your Whistle” is like taking a shot of five-hour energy right before you work out. The footwork remains, of course, but its running bassline is amped up with screaming whistles, angry clock-ticking, the mysterious aggro grunts of some animal-like being, and the insistent conducting of a child who demands that you “Blow your whistle” until you’re all out of air.
17. Hot Chip – “Motion Sickness”
Hot Chip reigns king of indie dance once again. (In Our Heads was one of the most underrated albums of the year according to this writer.) The song is beautifully precious in both sound and sentiment, rollicking in funk-tinged disco-house and the sort of self-mined existentialism that the band is most skilled at.
16. Mike Q – “Ha Dub Rewerkd”
This track may have come out in the tail-end of 2011 but it made its impact in early 2012 when modern ballroom and vogue culture seemed to get more attention than ever from the blogosphere. Released on the popular underground dance label Fade To Mind, Mike Q’s take on Masters At Work’s “Ha Dance” — a ballroom staple — served as a sign that younger Jersey-based producers were focused on breaking out of their niched demographics and brilliantly capable of making genre-bending tracks that showcased their modern ballroom style where music revolves around dance. The proof: Missy Elliott recently picked up Mike Q to work on production for her roster of artists.
15. DJ Sliink – “Putcha Back In It”
A straightforward face-down, ass-up battle song wherein a shrill battle-conductor cries for participants to “Put ya back in it!” amid chants of “Work! Work! Work! Work!” Hard, pounding bass, syncopated claps, and energetically squeaking, echoing drums (that sound a whole lot like a mattress getting a workout) sometimes makes the two-minute track feel like it was cut off before we’ve had enough of it. This is why you’ll end up listening to it on repeat.
14. Disclosure – “Latch” Ft. Sam Smith
Recently signed to PMR (home to listmates Jessie Ware and Julio Bashmore), UK-based garage-house duo Disclosure opted for the pop route with “Latch.” It’s their best attempt at a true crossover jam — Sam Smith’s breezy R&B crooning helps here — with a relaxed kick-drum over the bass and fluttering synths that rise up out of the wispy swirls of lovey static. It might not be as ideal for dancing as it as headphone daydreaming.
13. Untold – “Motion The Dance”
A pulsing, skipping bass drives this dub experimentalist’s most exciting track of the year. What’s great about the sinister foundation is how seamlessly the producer changes gears within the track. A shower of sweet, melodic synths and a subtle piano appears early on only to be drowned out by grating, piercing buzzes of acid inflections. Raw sputters of grinding gears persist almost to the end before fading out to leave us with a spin on that same familiar bassline we started out with. With Untold it’s about the journey, not the destination.
12. John Talabot – “So Will Be Now” Ft. Pional
Beautifully haunting, lightly layered disco-house with fuzzy nostalgia mirrored in blurred, throaty vocals and a yearning plucking bass. Talabot’s strength here lies in balancing hints of gloom with warm, luminescent synth bursts, and a persistent beat.
11. Zebra Katz Ft. Njena Reddd Foxxx – “Ima Read”
Dark, bouncing bass with no-nonsense swag and lyrical fierceness is what makes this one of the best songs of the year. In vogue culture, “reading” is to insult someone creatively; you want to go with wit and flair over easy-way-out vulgarity. The graceful, sharp-tongued sass of Zebra Katz is spot-on here, and it’s not hard to believe that he’s got the moves to back it up too.
10. Pearson Sound – “Untitled”
Pearson Sound has gone through a bit of a facelift and with amazing results. There’s the stuttering in both his chopped vocal clips and the frenetic clap behind the basslines. A shimmery, almost unnoticeable hi-hat fades in and out as the DJ shows off his intuitive accenting: There’s a phrase with wubbing blow-outs and another that features a gently swaying string melodies that melts into ambience.
9. DJ Rashad – “Trap Back”
If dance music is going to embrace this whole “trap” movement, then this is the way to do it. Here, juke maestro DJ Rashad samples Gucci Mane’s “Trap Back,” speeding it up to a kicked-up groove and adding ghetto-house clap flair on chopped vocals. Gucci’s signature “Burr” doesn’t make the cut, unfortunately, but count on the precisely maneuvered elastic, snapping bass to fill any voids.
8. Todd Terje – “Inspector Norse”
Groovy, laid-back Todd Terje disco-house where savvy, sauntering basslines are happily complemented with an airy synth melody and tinkling percussion accents. Beam-me-up laser pings and subtle hand claps lead into a smooth, satisfying climax.
7. Rihanna – “Where Have You Been”
We can all agree that Rihanna is the undisputed queen of 2012, right? Releasing club hits with (or about) her widely hated ex, making Oprah momentarily relevant to millions of teenagers, jumping on the #seapunk train, shuttling a plane full of journalists while on tour for one great spectacle (and fail?) of a PR stunt: If there was one thing Rihanna succeeded in this year, it was keeping all eyes on her. Dramas and publicity aside, Rihanna cemented her place as a no-apologies, dance-oriented pop artist with the “Where Have You Been,” a song written and produced by her old friends Calvin Harris and Dr. Luke. It’s an emotionally manipulative track where a hook of moody trance synths are bolstered by urgent snares and end in squelching bass. It’s the sort of dubstep cliche that we might hate in any other song, but with Rihanna plays like sexy and romantic dance-floor provocation.
6. “Julio Bashmore” – Au Seve
Julio Bashmore’s first release on his own label is a throw-your-hands-up banger with all the elements to make it one of the strongest feel-good house releases of the year. Resident Advisor put it best as far as we’re concerned: “Au Seve” distilled the Bristol producer’s populist house down into something so pure it’s like a table of elements for house music.” And a catchy one at that.
5. TNGHT – “Bugg’n”
Of the five songs on TNGHT’s debut EP, “Goooo” is the heaviest while “Higher Ground” is the most innovative with embellishments. “Bugg’n,” however, wins for its efficiency; there is less knob-twisting and sampling bravado and just as hard of a punch. There’s the hiccuping coo of a baby and an echoing, staccato cymbal melody (later mirrored in hollow synths). The basslines bubble with reserved energy and often take a backseat to the melody before bouncing back in with earthquake-like ferocity.
4. Blawan – “Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage”
London producer Blawan returns with the same off-beat, eclectic production stylings that he brought to last year’s “Getting Me Down.” With a thrillingly terrifying voice on the hook, this metallic, grating techno stomp is pure adrenaline. The track is practically made from a B-horror flick’s sample board: screams, plunking bass guitar, flashes of razor sharp cymbals, and a gagging bassline. The result makes for a song that’s as interesting and thrilling as it is sinister.
3. Brenmar & DJ Sliink – “BAIT”
Brenmar and DJ Sliink win the award for the most straightforward and flawlessly FUN track of this list. Raid alarms signal the impending party — which turns out to be something between an impromptu dance-off and a rowdy moshpit of friends. The hard, persistent drums are met with pulsing hi-hats, a sing-sing break, and infectious clap lines.
2. Jessie Ware – “Running” (Disclosure Remix)
It’s hard not to compare Jessie Ware’s gorgeously understated dance-pop stylings to that of fellow UK siren Katy B. There’s nothing retro about the way the singer’s music plays with vintage drum machines and the breezy vocal stylings of throwback girl groups. Instead, her debut feels like the makings of a classic, down-to-earth pop star. Here, Disclosure gives “Running” extra bounce with a garage-inflected beat.
1. Kanye West – “Mercy” (RL Grime & Salva Remix)
Kanye West’s “Mercy” might be one of the less obvious successes of the underground dance scene this year. Though he’s not allowed to disclose details, Warp Records’ Hudson Mohawke had a hand in producing the song’s addictive beat and helped in making it a song we couldn’t get away from (or out of our heads) all year. RL Grime and Salva’s rendition made those same drums hit even harder with staccato synths on the beat and a low-swinging bass that hits at the clap. Bloated, swelling build-ups and tightly wound snare rolls make lyrical swag take a backseat on this rendition of one of the best tracks of the year.