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Year-End Lists

The 40 Best Dance Songs of 2015

20. Benoit & Sergio, “House With 500 Rooms”

Benoit & Sergio are known for some of pop-minded house music’s more ironic, introspective lyrics, thanks to Benjamin “Sergio” Myers’ failed career as an English teacher and early endorsements from New York’s archest dance vinyl vendors, DFA Records. “House of 500 Rooms” gets its well-heeled kicks from the latter’s tongue-in-cheek spirit, strutting aggressively down a catwalk paved with glittering 4/4 piano bars, illuminated by the bright shakes of a tambourine. It’s glamorous, it’s bitchy (“Our house is bigger than your house, your diva house, your Swedish house”), it’s just close enough to perfectly un-self-serious. — H.B.

19. Julio Bashmore feat. Sam Dew, “Holding On”

The looped sample that kicks off and ultimately propels “Holding On” — a sped-up chop of Inner Life and Jocelyn Brown’s early-’80s disco ballad “Make It Last Forever” is immediately thick and immersive enough to build a whole club track around. What makes Julio Bashmore’s groover so impressive is how he manages to fit Sam Dew’s Miguel-like croon around the hook, creating a coherent dance-pop banger with proper verse/chorus build out of what easily could’ve been a Duck Sauce-flavored nonsense jam. No further spins on “Holding On” necessary, it already sounds like the best possible remix of itself. — A.U.

18. John Roberts, “Orah”

To launch his label Brunette Editions, John Roberts did nothing short of completely changing his music-making process. “Orah” was created entirely on an MPC2000 sampler using sounds collected from junk-store records, yet the results are as lush and intricate as any of Roberts’ oeuvre. Collaged from a bevy of varying sources, the ten-minute-long tune enmeshes listeners in its ecosystem where water splashes against thundering hand drums and synthesizers bird-call to one another. Roberts’ carefully selected melodies form a tapestry of plucked instruments with a pronounced Eastern lilt, arranged in clusters of busy activity and more languid passages, demonstrating an ability to conjure a sense of place and movement with a clarity many of his peers cannot touch. — S.M.

17. Jack Ü feat. AlunaGeorge, “To Ü”

Aluna Francis has worked with artists on the lower end of the Hz spectrum before, but they’ve worked around her breathy insistences rather than rolling with them: Rustie crumpled her quips into tiny pockets of air between his crashing cacophony, while Baauer catered to her penchant for Aaliyah-era Timbaland’s doom-y clicks and clacks. But on “To U,” there’s a strangely emotional equilibrium between Skrillex and Diplo’s muted, grainy horn theme and her quivering pleas for a long-lost ex. That is, until the chorus’ nuclear fallout, as skittering acoustics smash and shatter around her warped vocals, much like her breaking heart. — H.B.

16. Martin Solveig & GTA, “Intoxicated”

“Intoxicated” gets right to the point: “Let’s dance! No time for romance.” And indeed, there’s not much time to do anything except bend knees and elbows to Martin Solveig and GTA’s one-two punch of simultaneous bass and three-chord baritone horn blasts, such a thunderous clap that the speakers’ air pressure forces all oxygen from the floor and thoughts from your mind. Except for a swooning “Woo!” that speaks well for anyone within earshot. — H.B.

15. DJ PayPal, “Awakening”

Teklife’s masked marauder finally went legit with a bump from Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label. Like that beat-scene icon — who’s been known to give tracks titles like “Kill Your Coworkers” — this Sold Out standout balances its purling gravitas with limping levity. Cacophonous saxes tumble like kids on a playground and his kick-drum exercises feel better for soundtracking a game of hopscotch than a dance-floor throwdown. — C.J.

14. Matrixxman, “Augmented”

One of the most noteworthy dance-music trends of 2015 was house producers making and playing techno. Perhaps they were running away from commercial “deep house” or riding the ’90s revivalism to the next sonic point, but it made for a harder, faster year in clubs regardless. Matrixxman’s long-awaited full-length debut Homesick was a varied but thoroughly techno album, and its standout track, “Augmented,” is a seamless hybrid between his house and techno styles. Powered by a relentlessly percussive synth line and sharp drum work, the track commands listeners’ attention while a delicate, bell-like synth line completes the hypnosis. It’s the kind of track you could imagine fitting in DJ sets by Dixon or Marcel Dettmann with equal ease. Even in 2015 that would be an accomplishment. — S.M.

13. Daniel Avery, “Sensation”

That Daniel Avery didn’t grow up on house music isn’t immediately apparent from the sleek locomotion he’s been conjuring out of drum machines and analog synths for the past half decade. But sidle closely to the cyborg funk of his latest effort, “Sensation,” and it’s clear that his extra-club fixations are what’s providing the compelling crags and wrinkles in his uncanny valley visage. Delicate swoons collide with rigid drum work ripped straight from Loveless, along with a sense of wordless malcontent that’s run through all your favorite post-punk records. This sort of emotive mechanization is de rigeur in club structures, but Avery’s unpolished approach is refreshing — you start to believe the frown. — C.J.

12. Jaga Jazzist, “Oban” (Todd Terje Remix)

As brilliantly galactic as Jaga Jazzist’s original “Oban” was on the producer’s underrated Starfire LP, he needed Norwegian house legend Todd Terje as his co-pilot to properly achieve warp speed. With Terje’s future-jazz drum shuffle and protruding “Delorean Dynamite” keys propelling the narrative, the song’s first six minutes turn into a lightsaber duel of colliding action, before the song’s weeping strings enter to give it the Chewbacca-wailing climax it calls out for. Better f**king believe the force awakens. — A.U.

11. DJ Rashad feat. DJ Spinn, “Ya Hot”

As the ripples still pulse outward from the tragedy of DJ Rashad’s death, the footwork scene that created itself in his image tries to push on. Through Jlin’s industrial provocations and DJ Paypal’s puckish pranks, the arrhythmic grind of the fleet-footed genre has picked up new dimensions both harrowing and ecstatic. “Ya Hot,” drawn from the first posthumous release since Rashad’s passing, is indicative that he’d probably be in favor of both developments — since he was already doing both. Time-traveling synthesizers warp and rend like Jetsons spaceships around a subterranean kick pattern noisier and more cavernous than anything else he’s ever released, lending both a humor and black hole-gravity to his usual hedonistic proceedings. It’s cause for giddy laughter, anxious tears, and genuine puzzlement: Just how far ahead of the game was he? — C.J.

10. Percussions, “Digital Arpeggios”

It was a year of never-quite-delivered payoffs for the producer born Kieran Hebden, most notably with the Guinness-worthy delayed drop on his Four Tet-monikered remix of Eric Prydz’s “Opus,” but also here, on his poppiest release of 2015. The song hopscotches in with a synth hook bright and bubbly enough to kick off a mid-’80s New Edition smash, and seems like it’s going to explode into pure pop bliss. But release never quite comes — instead, synth moans creep in from below to undercut the chipperness, and the song’s twinkle becomes a decidedly nocturnal one. A fake ending turns out to just be the introduction of the pounding “Nuxx”-like section of the jam, and soon enough, we’re right back where we started. “Arpeggios” is confounding for its unexpected detours, but ultimately far richer and more replayable for them, Hebden keeping us forever tantalized with the promise of the dance-pop crossover that will surely never come. — A.U.

9. Cyril Hahn feat. Joel Ford, “Last”

Vancouver producer Cyril Hahn’s Begin EP was one of the year’s most captivating dance releases, a mix of synth-pop, dream-pop, and deep house that played to the strengths of its guests (Swedish/Australian twin duo Say Lou Lou, New Zealand trio Yumi Zouma) without losing its essential character. “Last” was most hypnotic of all, a pulsing drive through rainy streets with guest vocalist Joel Ford waxing sentimental about whoever’s riding shotgun. “When I look into your eyes / I can see your love has come alive,” he repeats in a hazy wisp, as Hahn folds Ford’s vocals in on themselves over the song’s techno swell, increasing their intensity exponentially. It’s not the final track on the EP, but “Last” is still an appropriate title — there was no following this up for Hahn this year. — A.U.

8. DJ Koze, “XTC”

Even notorious dance-music hater Steve Albini might find little to criticize about DJ Koze’s beatific “XTC” — especially since the Hamburg producer dangles a cowbell a couple of times into the track’s kaleidoscopic eight-minute unfurl. But “XTC” needs no such adornments, or blessings: It’ll get under your translucent skin just the same. Behind a pulse of such insistent warmth it feels like you’re cradled by your own heartbeat, Koze spreads a blanket of noise, spiked with back-scratching shakers and mechanized hoots and hollers, splashing cold water on a woman’s soothing, thick-tongued meditation of the powers and perils of ecstasy. — H.B.

7. Roman Flügel, “Sliced Africa”

Roman Flügel’s musical fearlessness, combined with his already broad musical knowledge-base, has allowed the producer to integrate all manner of influences into his sound without merely appropriating them. Take, for example, his “Bahia Blues Bootcamp” track from 2011, which fed his signature squirrelly synth sounds into the funky-stepping rhythms common in Bahia music, creating an instant hit. This year he did something similar on “Sliced Africa,” sprinkling neon-bright synth lines in jittery patterns that resemble Kwaito and other indigenous forms of contemporary African music. But where others might wantonly sample this music to flavor their own, Flügel learned and reinterpreted the style with his own instrumentation to celebrate it. Audiences celebrated it as well, getting down to the fat tom sounds below the swishing hi-hats, and flashing big grins as they’re peppered with unpredictable melodies. — S.M.

6. Nicolas Jaar, “Swim”

The practice of musique concrète is akin to rock balancing: stacking gravelly pebbles of found sounds and bass-y boulders into some kind of sense-defying order, building a self-sustaining structure from the frictional textures. Electronic architect Nicolas Jaar is a master of this patient game, an aesthetic he put into practice with this year’s Nymphs EPs, a slowly unveiled series of analog excavations as rich and varied as his 2011 breakthrough full-length, Space Is Only Noise. Over the course of 13 murmuring minutes on “Swim,” he whips the opening eddies of grumbling whistles, clicks, and static into a froth of gasping snares and incessantly thwapping through line. For a moment it’s washed away, the beats stripped of their ambient noise and the hollowed-out track filled with faded, indiscernible echoes — but then, like a tsunami, it all rushes back to engulf you in overpowering noise. — H.B.

5. Levon Vincent, “Woman Is an Angel”

Six years later, Levon Vincent decided to return to the depressing scene of the brutalist dub techno and brutal gender politics of his 2009 single, “Woman Is the Devil.” Realizing, perhaps, that both the pessimism and #problematic track title underserved his high-minded house pump-fakes. He revised his stance with “Woman Is an Angel,” whose fly-wing static hints at a similar darkness to that early work, but a flurry of orchestral romanticism brings love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control. This is Levon Vincent reborn, and it’s good to have him in the light. — C.J.

4. DJDS, “You Don’t Have to Be Alone”

Jerome LOL and Samo Sound Boy spliced together Friend of Mine, their sample-laden 2014 debut as DJDS (formerly DJ Dodger Stadium), in one room — a true bedroom-recording project, albeit one with such acute yearning for human connection it’s as if they were staring out the window the whole time. “You Don’t Have to Be Alone,” the blood-boiling first listen off of DJDS’ latest exercise in PLUR workouts, Stand Up and Speak, busts down those four walls in title and tone. A piano’s halting half-steps coax the song’s looped refrain from the lungs of real-life vocalists Jerome and Samo (found on Craigslist), their quavering vocal outbursts fading in and out, as if underwater, before bursting to the surface of the song’s strengthening, skittering beat. Together, the multi-tracked group-hug of background vocals seem to say, “We don’t have to be alone.” — H.B.

3. Pender Street Steppers, “The Glass City”

Before “steppers” became synonymous with aerobics risers, it referred to a stately, Chicago-born swing dance that’s still very much alive and, er, kicking. Vancouver’s Pender Street Steppers might not be “REAL Steppers,” but the downtempo duo’s laid-back ode to their hometown knocks its transparent heels together with similarly classic vibes. “The Glass City” clops into place with a solid skip-and-a-hop bounce and muffled trumpet toots, as if blanketed by the Pacific Northwest’s temperate rainforest mist — and the song’s crackling guiro shines little rays of light with its bossa-nova brightness. Its sleepy grooves are out of time and place. You won’t find Pender Street on Google Maps, but you’ll find anyone listening to “The Glass City” stepping out onto wet cobblestone streets, gently itching in equal measure to turn up or to turn down the sheets. — H.B.

2. Lindstrøm feat. Grace Hall, “Home Tonight”

For many musicians, touring is not only the main money maker, but a regular source of validation and a chance to see friends and peers — to say nothing of different cities and cultures. Yet there’s something quite special about coming home, a feeling Hans-Peter Lindstrøm captures on his exceptional epic “Home Tonight.” With surging synth lines whose arpeggios glimmer as they bounce off of each other, the tune is upbeat and straightforward, especially by Lindstrøm standards. Grace Hall’s slender and sweet vocals beckon, “Hey, won’t you come home?” and “Promise me you’ll be there,” lending emotional urgency to the giddy instrumental. Lindstrøm’s sense of joy when homeward bound is made even more palpable during the euphoric, housey piano breakdown. And despite its nine minute run-time, “Home Tonight” flies by, demanding to be played again. That Lindstrøm continues to write such engaging and relevant dance tracks while sticking to his stylistic strengths is a testament to his musical mastery. — S.M.

1. RP Boo, “Bang’n on King Dr.”

One of the unfortunate downsides to the global takeover of electronic dance music this decade has been a sort of loss of regional specificity, the ineffable sense of place that came with the earliest transmissions from cities like Detroit, Manchester, and (of course) Chicago. RP Boo’s “Bang’n on King Dr.” might not remedy that geographical vagueness all on its own, but the song not only reflects its Chi-town origins — it loudly broadcasts them, with its title, lyrics, and every bank-pad stutter. The song’s GPS signal is so strong — not just for the Windy City, but for an identifiable stretch of streets along its titular drive, where the annual Bud Billiken Parade takes place — that the coordinates listed in the lyrics (“From 39th to 43rd to 47th…”) become an anthem unto themselves. It’s the rare footwork song whose vocals manage to be even more frenetic and exhilarating than the skittering beat itself, which you might not even notice underneath the overlapping “HereWEcome” and “BANGINONKINGDRIVE” calls.

Despite its recording dating back all the way to 2005, “Bang’n on King Dr.” was still about as exciting as music got in 2015. Not just because of the way it makes your body start convulsing involuntarily from its first lyrical refrain and short-wires your brain with its first chorus drop, but because of how its outsized local pride turns it into something of a protest song. There’s nothing explicitly political in the lyrics, but in a year when Chicago continues to be absolutely overrun with violence, there’s something undeniably powerful about a song in defiant support of the city’s vibrant heart, one that traveled to the country’s biggest and oldest African-American parade for its hyperkinetic music video. “King Dr.” doesn’t imply a solution to the area’s problems, but it does suggest a time-honored solution to not letting the negativity overwhelm what it is that makes your hometown so great in the first place — just keep bang’n. — A.U.