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Top 100 DJs Poll: Who Won, Who Lost, and What the Hell Is Hardstyle?

Crunching numbers of annual 'DJ Mag' popularity contest

On Friday, DJ Mag announced the results of its annual Top 100 DJs poll, an institution in overground dance music. The results suggest some surprising shifts in a wildly mercurial and increasingly globalized assortment of overlapping scenes, even as they ignore vast swaths of some of the world’s most dynamic, creative, and progressive electronic dance music.

When it began as a print magazine’s readers’ poll in 1997, the list largely reflected the tastes of the U.K.’s clubbers, with a heavy emphasis on trance, house, progressive, and techno. In the past half-decade, however, as voting has shifted online and the sample size has grown to encompass a worldwide fan base with conflicting tastes, the poll’s increasingly spasmodic fluctuations have come to exemplify the contested identity of “dance music” itself, both as a category and as a community — particularly as so-called “EDM” has skyrocketed in popularity in the United States. With the explosion of social media, the poll has also become an exercise in determining which artists can flex the greatest social-media muscle — testing, at times, the poll administrators’ ability to stamp out vote-rigging and IP cheats.

This year’s top 10 sees some reshuffling after 2011, when David Guetta took the No. 1 slot and knocked Armin van Buuren down a peg, ending the Dutch trance DJ’s four-year run in the pole position. This year, van Buuren is back on top; Tiësto climbs back to No. 2, and Avicii, last year’s sixth-place entry, takes the bronze. Guetta falls to No. 4, and Deadmau5, the performer everyone seems to love to hate, slips to No. 5. The biggest shakeup in the top 10 is the Dutch DJ Hardwell’s 18-place jump to the No. 6 position. And Skrillex holds on to his golden-boy status by finally making it to No. 10, after last year’s debut at No. 19.

But, for the most part, that kind of hair-splitting is irrelevant to all but the ranking artists’ managers, who will now feel emboldened to raise the booking fees for artists who have risen in the polls. In fact, treating the list’s minuscule, year-by-year fluctuations with any kind of seriousness feels not only silly but a little misguided.

While competition has long been a part of the DJ landscape, from Jamaica’s soundclashes to hip-hop’s DJ battles, the DJ Mag poll isn’t based on anything so tangible as a specific performance. It’s a popularity contest, pure and simple, one whose results are skewed by dance music’s global diffusion, the self-promotion and social-media savvy of individual artists and their promo teams (many artists campaign heavily for votes during the process), and the widening gulf between the big-tent masses and the ever-fractured underground.

Even the title itself is largely meaningless, given that many artists in the top ranks aren’t, strictly speaking, DJs at all — just consider Daft Punk, not to mention the irascible button-pusher Deadmau5, who famously proclaimed that DJs are “fucking cunts.” (This year, he apparently declined to answer the boilerplate question submitted to all artists in the poll: “Are you a DJ if you don’t beat-match?” Of course, he already addressed that in his controversial “We All Hit Play” post: “beatmatching isnt even a fucking skill as far as im concerned anyway. so what, you can count to 4. cool. i had that skill down when i was 3.”)

But the poll does offer some insights into dance music’s identity crisis, at least insofar as it can be held up as a mirror to the festival landscape. While roughly a third of the top 100 DJs come from the trance scene, nearly half of the poll’s entrants represent what we might call EDM as a genre unto itself: The wub-loving, pop-dance amalgam practiced by artists as diverse (and at the same time, as maddeningly interchangeable) as Tiësto, Avicii, Swedish House Mafia, Steve Aoki, and on down the line. Techno has all but disappeared from the rankings. Pioneers like Jeff Mills and Laurent Garnier are long gone. Even progressive house seems to be on the wane, with many of the progressive and trance artists who remain now dedicated to poppier, less purist trends in main-stage EDM. Dubstep, despite its massive hype of the past few years, barely registers. And yet hardstyle, a genre all but unknown to most American clubbers, is represented by a dozen or more artists, accounting for the poll’s third most popular genre.

See the whole list at DJ Mag, and read on for some key takeaways from this year’s rankings, along with lists of this year’s new entrants; DJs who got bumped from the top 100; the biggest risers; and the most precipitous drops. And when we say “drops,” we don’t mean the kind Skrillex fans love so much.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
The Swedish House Mafia fell two places, getting knocked out of the top 10 after last year’s No. 10 position. Individually, the trio’s members fared even worse. Sebastian Ingrosso fell eight places (from 26 to 34), Axwell dropped by 11 (from 12 to 23), and Steve Angello plummeted 34 spots (from 23 to 57). With a cumulative drop of 53 chart positions between the three individuals, that reunion tour might happen sooner than anyone planned.

Sisters Are Doin’ It by Themselves
Last year, not a single woman ranked in the Top 100. This year, there were two (sort of): The twin sisters in the dance-pop duo Nervo, who made their debut at 46. There must be a good mansplanation for the otherwise total absence of women from the rankings — but it’s probably not one that will make us feel too sanguine about feminism’s progress in dance-music culture.

Harder Harder Harder Stronger
Insomniac was clearly onto something when it teamed up with Dutch promoters Q-Dance to present the “In Hardstyle We Trust” stage at this year’s Las Vegas edition of the Electric Daisy Carnival. You won’t read much about hardstyle — an overblown fusion of trance, gabber, and hardcore techno — in the mainstream American media; it doesn’t even get covered by many specialist dance publications. But the maximalist style, all Mentasm stabs and bouncy, 6/8 rhythms, is on the rise worldwide, or at least among DJ Mag voters. This year’s poll included Angerfist, Brennan Heart, Coone, Da Tweekaz, D-Block & S-Te-Fan, Frontliner, Headhunterz, Noisecontrollers, Psyko Punkz, Ran D, Wasted Penguinz, Wildstylez, and Zatox, all representatives of the genre. Headhunterz, the scene’s biggest crossover success, went all the way to No. 11, thanks in part to having remixed more mainstream producers like Kaskade and Hardwell.

Part of hardstyle’s success probably stems from its sheer volume and comparative lack of funk — attributes that go down well with amped-up teens who just want to rage. Given the music’s Wagnerian bombast, it’s tempting to say that it’s the whitest genre of electronic music there is — not surprising, perhaps, given that it grew out of gabber, a genre that attracted a neo-Nazi following in the 1990s. Of course, that’s not the fault of gabber or hardstyle — you can’t blame punk, after all, for the existence of bands like Skrewdriver — and the music’s popularity in Malaysia certainly stands as a rebuke to gabber’s white-nationalist factions.

Most importantly, hardstyle is one of the only subgenres of electronic dance music to have developed its own dance culture, with styles like “shuffle” and “jumpstyle” — highly aerobic movements that suggest a cross between Irish step dancing, ska skanking, and kickboxing — thriving at international battles and on YouTube.

At Electric Daisy Carnival 2011, I watched many dancers in front of video cameras they had placed on the ground, documenting their own moves to later upload to social media. That kind of participatory element, whereby the fans share the spotlight with the DJs, surely accounts for hardstyle’s popularity in the poll. (It’s also possible that DJ Mag’s voter base is heavily weighted towards the Lowlands countries; I’d love to see a breakdown of where the poll’s voters came from.)

Dubstep: Always a Bridesmaid
According to most accounts, dubstep has taken the electronic-music world by storm in recent years, but you’d never know that from reading the DJ Mag poll. Aside from Skrillex, who really isn’t a dubstep musician per se, only one act, Nero (No. 83, up five spots from 2011) made it into this year’s results. Similarly, the only drum and bass DJ to make it into the poll is Netsky, who debuted at No. 95. As for big-name dubstep headliners like Rusko, Magnetic Man, and Skream, they’re nowhere to be found in the top 100 for 2012 (or 2011). Heavily hyped styles like moombahton and trap also go unrepresented in the top 100, although their tropes can be found in certain tracks by crossover fusionists like Skrillex. Maybe Taylor Swift should have skipped the dubstep breakdown and jumped directly to hardstyle, if she really wants to be au courant.

Daft Punk: Inhuman After All
Daft Punk have always been something of an anomaly in the Top 100 poll. For one thing, they don’t typically perform as DJs (even though both members are, indeed, talented jocks), but we’ve already established that traditional DJ skills are low on the list of many voters’ priorities. No, what’s truly strange about Daft Punk’s consistent showing in the polls, year after year, is that they don’t actually perform that often. In fact, they haven’t toured since 2007. They played one song alongside Kanye West at 2008’s Grammys, and since then, they’ve been AWOL from the stage. Despite all that, they’ve fared better in the polls than most of the world’s hardest-working DJs. From 2007 until 2012, Daft Punk have ranked, respectively, No. 71, No. 38, No. 33, No. 44, No. 28, and No. 44. That 33-point jump in 2008 is conceivably due to fans who saw them on the Alive 2007 tour (or who bought the CD). The 2009 bump likely derives from buzz alone. In 2010, they slipped 11 points, but still managed to remain in the top 50 despite not having made a single public appearance in three years. Last year, their Tron soundtrack undoubtedly helped account for their 16-point boost — an even greater factor is probably an influx of newfound EDM fans who voted them in on the strength of their “brand” alone. This year, they slipped back to their 2010 position; if they had trotted out so much as a hologram of themselves, they probably would have shot up to the top 10.

Even DJ Mag acknowledged the illogic of Daft Punk’s persistently strong showing when, in 2011, they wrote, “In some kind of parallel universe, we have all been to one of their gigs, left brain-washed into thinking they do actually DJ on a regular basis, wowing us with their electronic wizardry and reputation. And then in a Men In Black-esque moment, we’ve had our memories wiped clean. Weird.”

What Happened to Techno?
In 2006, Samuel L Session and Paris the Black Fu summed up techno’s perennial (and self-congratulatory) underdog status with “Can You Relate,” which featured the refrain, “What happened to the techno? What happened to the music? What happened to the funk? What happened to the underground?” (It was an answer song to Abe Duque and Blake Baxter’s 2004 underground hit “What Happened?,” an encomium to storied, shuttered clubs like Studio 54, the Music Box, and Dorian Grey.) When it came out, “Can You Relate” seemed less defiant than petulant; today, it feels prescient. What happened to the techno, indeed?

As recently as 2009, DJ Mag’s top 100 still made room for Ricardo Villalobos; go back to 2007, and the poll encompassed a broad array of respected veterans, underground upstarts, and comparatively experimental players from the house and techno scenes: Jeff Mills, Laurent Garnier, Erol Alkan, Adam Beyer, Magda, Dave Clarke, Danny Tenaglia, and James Holden all found footholds, and Richie Hawtin was still way up at No. 19.

It’s true that many of these DJs, and their peers, have been eclipsed by more stadium-friendly names, but they still pack clubs across the world and have sizable fan bases. One wonders if the DJ Mag poll’s shift away from underground styles has been self-reinforcing: As commercial DJs have moved up and the underground has fallen off, fans of the latter may have given up on voting in the poll entirely. There are few undecided voters in dance music, but the number of fans who choose to abstain from exercises like the DJ Mag poll is undoubtedly vast.

The Decks Factor
Simon Cowell may have put the kibosh on his proposed X-Factor-style talent show for DJs, but reality TV got its revenge in the form of Quentin Mosimann (No. 74), a Swiss singer who previously won France’s Star Academy reality show.

10 Biggest Jumps from 2011 to 2012
1. Porter Robinson: From 96 to 40 (+56)
2. Alesso: From 70 to 20 (+50)
3. Brennan Heart: From 98 to 49 (+49)
4. Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike: From 79 to 38 (+ 41) / Tenishia: From 91 to 50 (+41)
5. Wildstylez: From 80 to 41 (+39)
6. Steve Aoki: From 42 to 15 (+27)
7. AN21: From 85 to 61 (+24)
8. Hardwell: From 24 to 6 (+18) / Tritonal: From 83 to 65 (+18)
9. Orjan Nilsen: From 49 to 32 (+17) / Dirty South: From 93 to 76 (+17)
10. Dada Life: From 38 to 24 (+14)

10 Biggest Drops from 2011 to 2012
1. Bob Sinclar: From 33 to 94 (-61)
2. Benny Benassi: From 27 to 70 (-43) / John Digweed: From 55 to 98 (-43)
3. Andy Moor: From 50 to 87 (-37)
4. Steve Angello: From 23 to 57 (-34)
5. Richie Hawtin: From 45 to 78 (-33) / Roger Shah: From 51 to 84 (-33)
6. Richard Durand: From 60 to 89 (-29) / Paul Kalkbrenner: From 62 to 91 (-29)
7. Moonbeam: From 65 to 92 (-27)
8. Mark Knight: From 71 to 97 (-26)
9. D-Block & S-Te-Fan: From 40 to 64 (-24)
10. Tydi: From 48 to 71 (-23)

New Entrants to the 2012 Poll
Nicky Romero (17)
Arty (28)
Knife Party (33)
Nervo (46)
Zedd (51)
Madeon (54)
Omnia (58)
Tommy Trash (62)
Bingo Players (66)
Shogun (68)
R3hab (73)
Quentin Mosimann (74)
Wasted Penguinz (75)
Andrew Rayel (77)
Frontliner (79)
Heatbeat (81)
Thomas Gold (82)
Feed Me (85)
Mike Candys (86)
Ran D (88)
Netsky (95)
Neelix (96)
Da Tweekaz (99)
Project 46 (100)

Where Are They Now? DJs Edged Out After 2011’s Poll
Astrix (2011 position: 53)
Erick Morillo (54)
Showtek (58)
Skazi (61)
Sasha (63)
Eddie Halliwell (64)
Judge Jules (67)
Matt Darey (68)
Lange (74)
Joachim Garraud (75)
Simon Patterson (76)
Roger Sanchez (81)
Hernan Cattaneo (82)
DJ Vibe (84)
Bloody Beetroots (86)
Juanjo Martin (89)
Boy George (90)
Sidney Samson (92)
James Zabiela (94)
Marcel Woods (95)
Sven Väth (97)
Leon Boiler (99)
Boys Noize (100)