A Field Guide To Electronic Music
Historical appreciation, the best Essential mixes of all time, and "altars" for electronic music.
To maintain sanity while working from home this year, I started listening to electronic music DJ sets. It started off as an innocent, occasional thing. But it’s become a crutch as the pandemic persisted. The consistent beat, repetitive song structure, and minimal lyrics became the coffee in my cup. For an hour or two, I could get into a flow state and forget the fact I was hunched over a laptop in my bedroom. The next thing I know, I’m listening to 5+ hours a day.
Usually, I’m more of a hip-hop and indie rock fan. But after learning it’s a WFH cheat code, I’ve gone down the electronic music rabbit hole. My biggest takeaway: a new appreciation for its history and global reach.
First, it’s easier to appreciate with a historian’s eye (/ear). In this excellent 3 hr BBC documentary, I learned how late 70s disco pioneered the “4 on the floor” drum pattern on dancefloors. The uniform cadence allowed DJs to mix & match records and create an endless beat. From there, mostly in queer and Black discotheques in Chicago, disco’s primordial soup evolved into Chicago House, which morphed into Detroit techno, UK house, acid house, and later into a Cambrian explosion of new music strains.
You can trace that Cambrian explosion on the Ishkur Guide to Electronic Music, an interactive music tool. (If you zoom and click into genres there are musical samples - it’s a super useful tool.) Much of history is technological, too. For example, the squelchy sound of the TR-303 bass synthesizer, a commercial flop in 1982, was repurposed by British house producers to birth a new strain called acid house.
Similarly, I found there’s an underappreciated globalization story. Today, dance/electronic/house is the #3 most-listened genre in the world after pop and rock.
Top global music genres (n = 19,000 worldwide; source)
It’s the soundtrack to our globalized world, a musical lingua franca.
Even in the US, where it was never overwhelmingly popular, the tide has turned. Dance music commercialized a great deal in the 2010s when European DJs started collaborating with American pop stars. The term “EDM” is synonymous with this commercial strain. In Michael Tauberg’s excellent analysis of the Billboard 100, you can see EDM’s slow but steady growth (in blue) to represent about 8% of the top charts, as measured in weeks.
I wouldn’t say electronic music is seeing a meteoric rise—it’s far from displacing a genre like Country music—but there’s a steady secular trend of growth. Interestingly, How Rave Music Conquered America cites Daft Punk’s 2006 Coachella performance as a turning point for its festival-fueled rise.
Finding the good stuff
While I’ve become a poptimist, the commercial side of electronic music is often unlistenable for a music snob like myself. Sure, the greats are great. But I think even more so than in other genres, one must explore the underground.
First, I recommend checking out the big curators. Resident Advisor is more or less the Pitchfork of this world. Industry-leading DJs are often recorded by Boiler Room and Cercle for YouTube streaming. All of these are great venues to discover what you like.
By far, though, the genre’s highest altar is BBC 1’s Essential Mix where artists record DJ sets on an after-hours radio show. Essential Mix is run by the genre’s chief consigliere Pete Tong, famously the first record scout to import house music to the UK. Running since 1993, it’s become an institution for the electronic world. Anyone who’s anyone has done an Essential Mix, and the recordings are a great way to hear an artist showcase their influences and personal work simultaneously.
I’ve listened to a few dozen and I started keeping scores of my favorites in my official Most Essential Essential Mixes spreadsheet. My hope is it can help onboard folks to the essential mix universe.
There’s also a ton of genres to explore. A few years ago, I only liked progressive house (think: Deadmau5, Daniel Avery) and French Touch (Daft Punk). But over time I’ve gotten more adventurous with breakbeats, UK Garage, and deep house. I chalk that up to Essential Mix listening.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that Spotify is not always the best source for discovery. Soundcloud, Mixcloud, and Reddits are primarily where this stuff lives. Happy hunting.
Stay tuned, keep it locked, and Happy Holidays.